Where Things Come Back

Winner of the 2012 Michael L. Printz and William C. Morris Awards, this poignant and hilarious story of loss and redemption “explores the process of grief, second chances, and even the meaning of life” (Kirkus Reviews).

In the remarkable, bizarre, and heart-wrenching summer before Cullen Witter’s senior year of high school, he is forced to examine everything he thinks he understands about his small and painfully dull Arkansas town. His cousin overdoses; his town becomes absurdly obsessed with the alleged reappearance of an extinct woodpecker; and most troubling of all, his sensitive, gifted fifteen-year-old brother, Gabriel, suddenly and inexplicably disappears.
     Meanwhile, the crisis of faith spawned by a young missionary’s disillusion in Africa prompts a frantic search for meaning that has far-reaching consequences. As distant as the two stories initially seem, they are woven together through masterful plotting and merge in a surprising and harrowing climax.
     This extraordinary tale from a rare literary voice finds wonder in the ordinary and illuminates the hope of second chances.Just when seventeen-year-old Cullen Witter thinks he understands everything about his small and painfully dull Arkansas town, it all disappears. . . .

In the summer before Cullen’s senior year, a nominally-depressed birdwatcher named John Barling thinks he spots a species of woodpecker thought to be extinct since the 1940s in Lily, Arkansas. His rediscovery of the so-called Lazarus Woodpecker sparks a flurry of press and woodpecker-mania. Soon all the kids are getting woodpecker haircuts and everyone’s eating “Lazarus burgers.” But as absurd as the town’s carnival atmosphere has become, nothing is more startling than the realization that Cullen’s sensitive, gifted fifteen-year-old brother Gabriel has suddenly and inexplicably disappeared.

While Cullen navigates his way through a summer of finding and losing love, holding his fragile family together, and muddling his way into adulthood, a young missionary in Africa, who has lost his faith, is searching for any semblance of meaning wherever he can find it. As distant as the two stories seem at the start, they are thoughtfully woven ever closer together and through masterful plotting, brought face to face in a surprising and harrowing climax.

Complex but truly extraordinary, tinged with melancholy and regret, comedy and absurdity, this novel finds wonder in the ordinary and emerges as ultimately hopeful. It’s about a lot more than what Cullen calls, “that damn bird.” It’s about the dream of second chances.

John Corey Whaley’s Where Things Come Back Playlist

John Corey Whaley Where Things Come Back is based on the true story of the Lazarus Woodpecker: The supposed reappearance of the ivory-billed woodpecker is a true story that inspired expression in a variety of media. Author John Corey Whaley was inspired to write the book after he heard Sufjan Steven’s “The Lord God Bird” on NPR. Here he provides a custom playlist–one he listened to while writing the book–and some background on each song choice, including the song that inspired the book. Listen to his playlist.

“We Won’t Need Legs to Stand” by Sufjan Stevens
Aside from the obvious allusions to angels and the afterlife, this song has an eerie quality to it that speaks perfectly to the early parts of the story.

“The Lord God Bird” by Sufjan Stevens
This is the song that started it all…written about the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker in Arkansas with the combination of a banjo and melodic singing that one may very well hear in a town like Lily.

“Staring At the Sun” by TV On the Radio
There is a particular desperation in this, one of my favorite songs, that seems to fit the mother character perfectly. The story wouldn’t be the same without one moment when this song is quoted.

“Hope There’s Someone” by Antony And The Johnsons
The lyrics in this song speak clearly for themselves-the hope that there is something else after this life and that second chances do exist… that maybe things do come back.

“Postcards From Italy” by Beirut
This song has a sort of whimsical playfulness that I think represents the more fantastical elements of Cullen Witter’s story, especially in those moments where he seems to be completely in a world of his own.

“Trying My Best to Love You” by Jenny Lewis
I think this song is the perfect theme to Cullen’s adventures in teenage love, something that doesn’t come so easy to him.

“The Leaving Song” by Chris Garneau
I can’t ever listen to this song without thinking about Cullen Witter searching for his missing little brother. The line “You are all I know” sums it up beautifully.

“All the Right Reasons” by The Jayhawks
Another whimsical, yet powerful theme to Cullen’s search for meaning in his own existence and the hope of a better life.

“Welcome Home, Son” by Radical Face
Though the characters are conflicted with the “home” they’ve been born into, this song fits well into the overall theme of coming to terms with that struggle.

“Adventures In Solitude” by The New Pornographers
With the possible return of an extinct woodpecker in his town and the disappearance of a his teenage brother, this song and its title perfectly match up with Cullen Witter’s own adventures in solitude throughout the story.

“I See a Darkness” by Bonnie “Prince” Billy
I love most of Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s eerie, melodic songs, but this one in particular became the unofficial theme song for Gabriel, whose innocence and wise-beyond-his-years persona are threatened when he vanishes out of the lives of his loving family and friends.

“Home” by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros
I think this fun yet sincere song says so much not just about the story’s setting, but also the recurring struggle of all of the characters to find a place they belong and reconcile their inabilities to find the things and people without which they never can feel at home.

“Flume” by Bon Iver
When I first heard this song, a son’s ode to his mother and the love they share, I instantly thought of Cullen and Gabriel’s mother and aunt, two women who must struggle with the possibility of a life without their sons.

Nanci Arvizu, Writing and Reviews Editor

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3 Comments

  1. The revival of great Southern storytelling A few years ago, I lamented to a coworker that great Southern storytelling – the kind that held you to the feet of your grandfather, hanging on his every melodious word as he took you to a place that was distant yet familiar; heart-wrenching but hilarious – was dead. It was a lost art of a past generation. 

  2. Touching and Engaging Book You know you’re reading a fantastic book when you read the last paragraph and immediately turn back to the beginning to start it over again. 

  3. Original and entertaining. Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley is the kind of book that both mystifies and grows on you. It’s an odd little story that I’m not completely comfortable with, but yet there were moments I was completely captivated and caught up in the ridiculous yet mundane goings-on of Lily, Arkansas. 

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