Posted on September 13, 2013 | Back to Literature
Here be spoilers.
Based on my experiences as a foster parent, it's hard for me to read books that deal with either child abuse or missing children. Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley is a book about the latter.
If you haven't been in that situation, it's hard to imagine the horror of someone you love just vanishing. You go to bed every night wondering where they are; and despite your best efforts when you're lying awake at 2 a.m. trying to remain positive, the very worst thoughts still manage to creep in. The missing child's parents, siblings and friends all cycle through the different stages of grief without ever having a body to grieve over.
In this case, the missing person is 15-year-old Gabriel Witter, who one day vanishes from his small Arkansas town. The story's told from the point of view of Gabriel's older brother, Cullen, whose anguish about his brother is juxtaposed against the town's fervor over the rumor that the Lazarus woodpecker, a bird previously thought extinct, has been discovered living in the woods nearby. The tale of the woodpecker, of vanished Gabriel, and of two disillusioned young men obsessed with an obscure biblical mystery all blend together as the story progresses. (Trust me, it makes sense as you read on...) Cullen comes to resent the search for the bird (if it actually exists), which appears to be garnering more interest and public resources than that of his missing brother. The young Christians, Benton Sage and Cabbot Searcy, whose tale is told in third person, are equally disillusioned by the belief that humankind's destiny was subverted by God. As you can probably guess from the names of the characters and the bird, biblical lore plays a huge role in the book's main theme about how blind faith can drive people to madness.
I'm not a fast reader, but I tore through this book pretty quickly, caught up in the mystery behind Gabriel's disappearance and anxious to know how it all turned out. It's the sign of a good author when he can actually invoke the same emotions in the reader as he's displaying in his characters, and in this respect Where Things Come Back performs brilliantly.
I enjoyed the parts of the book told from Cullen's perspective more than the third-person narrative about Benton and Cabbot, mostly because the latter began to read like a dissertation after a while, propelling the story forward but without the same passion. Part of Cullen's appeal is he sounds and acts like an authentic teenager. His affection for his brother is credible and compelling, not an easy trick since Gabriel's missing through most of the story. Although Cullen's the older brother, he admits that Gabriel's more responsible, more interesting, and frankly, more cool than he. And he says this without a trace of resentment. It's a refreshing change from how most teenage siblings are depicted in young adult fiction, their relationships often characterized by resentment and one-upmanship.
Some readers of Where Things Come Back were upset with the story's ambiguous ending. Actually, this didn't bother me. Stories about missing children are often ambiguous in real life – people go missing and nobody ever knows what happened to them. But if I had one problem with the ending, it was that it seemed abrupt, as though certain other plot elements were dropped without being fully explained. Still, it was an enjoyable read which I highly recommend if you don't find the subject matter too disturbing. Better for ages fourteen and up, I think.