Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley is a refreshing and unpredictable spin on YA. It pulls you into a small town that you know too well, a suffocating place full of halfhearted ambition. But it leaves you hollow and gasping, a testimony to its thought-provoking, harrowing message.
The story alternates timelines. Most of it is told in first person by Cullen Witter, while another part, in third person, follows a young missionary, Benton Sage. It’s set in Lily, Arkansas, where Cullen lives, but it is also located inside every town and every person; a place with old, flickery diners; where nostalgia can feel like despair. Everyone in Lily wants to leave for something greater and more meaningful, but it’s a futile dream, as Cullen watches them return over the years and settle into old routines. During the summer before his senior year, an extinct woodpecker reappears and his brother disappears, leaving the town and his family in a frenzy. Cullen has to learn to balance the inexplicable loss while retaining enough strength to keep believing in the return of his brother, the fragility of the people around him, and above all, himself.
The woodpecker is an obvious metaphor for Gabriel, Cullen’s brother. It’s even named Lazarus, an allusion to the restoration of Saint Lazarus in the Gospel of John. But the book is not about sighting a bird; it’s about coping and enduring. Cullen is teetering, trying to hold the fragments of his family together. His mother panics—she is willing to do anything to find and explain the loss of her son. At one point she even hires a psychic to give her the false assurance that she needs.
There is something about the book and these characters that is always on the edge, looking into an abyss, perpetually wondering and speculating. And at any moment it might collapse into itself. Whaley allows for tiny, understated moments of tension and anxiety. Cullen spends much of the book condemning other people, bluntly pointing out their hypocrisies. But when a girl he barely knows visits him he becomes overwhelmed, even afraid of her sincerity, as he realizes for the first time that his brother might really be gone forever. In a startling moment of empathy, he embraces someone who is unhinged in her loneliness, a bit deranged from medication.
I had never before felt compelled to turn around and hug my aunt, but something made me do it, the same thing that makes people hold doors open for old ladies at grocery stores or stop and let people cross the road; things that felt regular and impersonal, but meant the world to those on the receiving end. I wrapped my arms around her and held her to my chest. It was very quiet in the room, I remember because I could hear Aunt Julia’s breathing. As I walked out the door, she stood watching me from the living room her arms limp at her sides, her shoulders slumped over, her face only half alive.
There are also drifting sections where Cullen talks outside of his body, as if he cannot stand to talk anymore from his conscience.
When one’s parents storm out of the house followed by a psychic who is still holding his missing brother’s T-shirt, he stands up, looks into his mother’s eyes, and wonders where they are headed. He looks over at his friend, who has tried his best not to cry, and sees that even he seems to be buying into these terrible theatrics. He follows his mother. She turns around, says, “We’re going to find your brother,” and gets into the backseat of his father’s truck.
It is a very human book, with a vulnerable presence that lingers long after it has been put down. Most of all, Where Things Come Back grapples with religion and faith—themes that can easily feel overwrought or condescending. It’s a brave topic for a YA book. Whaley neither condemns nor upholds religion; instead he uses it as a vessel to talk about abandonment and love and anger and life. I felt, while reading it, that the dark and desperate questions that Whaley’s characters deal with were not targeted at God or the fear of God, but rather at the fear of the unknown. There is a constant need throughout the book for definite answers, one that drives people to become resentful and distressed. How is it that disappointment and pride can be so much stronger and crueler than understanding? Why do people care more about returning woodpeckers than lost brothers? What stops us from becoming better people than we are today?
At the end, Where Things Come Back reminds you that when you find yourself searching for answers, you are often just looking for forgiveness. Sometimes there is just emptiness and no one to blame. But there are second chances. In a lovely paragraph, Whaley writes directly to the reader:
When I asked him the meaning of life, Dr. Webb got very quiet and then told me life has no one meaning, it only has whatever meaning each of us puts on our own life. I’ll tell you now that I still don’t know the meaning of mine. But I’ll tell you the meaning of all this. The meaning of some bird showing up and some boy disappearing and you knowing all about it. The meaning of this was not to save you, but to warn you instead. To warn you of confusion and delusion and assumption. To warn you of psychics and zombies and ghosts of your lost brother. To warn you of Ada Taylor and her sympathy and mothers who wake you up with vacuums. To warn you of two-foot-tall birds that say they can help, but never do.
This book tackles fear in an offbeat way. It’s tinged with absurdity and humor, filled with long-winded sentences and a quiet madness pushing beneath the surface. Woven through all of this, Whaley tells a story that is voraciously sad and resiliently hopeful.