I read this book because it won this year’s Printz Award for Young Adult Literature. Here I take a very small moment to note that the winners of all three of the ALA awards that I pay the most attention to – the Newbery, Printz, and Odyssey – were this year by and about males. I am torn between thinking that books by men are already over-recognized and over-reviewed, and thinking that having strong boy books could help combat the notion that only books for girls get published any more.
Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley. Cullen Witter, aged 17, lives in the small town of Lily, Arkansas. His best friends are his younger brother Gabriel and Lucas, a very popular boy who manages to spend large amounts of time with Cullen without altering either of their popularity scores (Cullen’s: dismal. Lucas’s: very high.) One of Cullen’s pastimes is writing down titles for books he might someday write, and the narrative switches charmingly between Cullen’s first-person casual narrative of passing events and his more formal and somehow funnier third-person reflections on what has just happened. Many things are happening. Cullen’s slightly older cousin has just died of a drug overdose. A man who seems to Cullen and his small gang clearly to be a charlatan has come to Lily claiming to have seen a living Lord God Bird, a very large woodpecker believed to be extinct. Many tourists follow, hoping to see it. Lucas sets Cullen up on a date with Alma Ember, a recent graduate of the high school, who left Lily, married, divorced, and returned. Even though Cullen has an enormous crush on the prettiest girl in school (of course already dating the biggest and meanest boy in the school) and feels odd dating an older woman, he agrees, in order to go on the double date that Lucas so clearly has his heart set on. And then Gabriel disappears into the blue, leaving everyone adrift. Weeks go by with no news, and the family and their friends struggle to carry on and to know whether or not they should give up hope. Alternating with this main story is the story of Benton Sage, a young man eager to please his uncompromising father, who tries and fails at mission work in Africa and then goes to college. He becomes obsessed with the apocryphal Book of Enoch, and involves his roommate in this obsession. The characters in the Lily, Arkansas part of the story seemed just slightly quirkier regular humans – Ada Taylor’s curse of having her boyfriends die off, for example. By contrast, something about the characters and the storytelling style of the Benton Sage plot line seemed a little stiff and unreal, so that for most of the book I thought that we were reading Cullen’s novel-in-progress. Then the stories intersected and I had to revise everything that I had thought about it. There are some very serious topics addressed here, like the balance of sanity and insanity in the face of extreme grief. “Where Things Come Back” seems to refer both to hoped-for returns like the Lord God bird, and the return of people like Alma who hoped to get out of Lily and end up coming right back home. Somehow, perhaps due to copious amounts of under-aged if not graphically described sex, and definitely Cullen’s sense of humor, the book manages to feel, if not light, a whole lot lighter than I’d expect a book with one missing and a couple of dead teens to be. These are topics that I normally try to avoid, but I found myself enjoying this book, rooting for the characters and hoping that Gabriel would come back.