Where Things Come Back
By John Corey Whaley
Atheneum, 2011. 228 pgs. Young Adult
Winner of the American Library Association's William C. Morris Debut Award and the Michael L. Printz Award for best young adult novel, When Things Come Back is a jewel of a book, so good it made me forget my resentment that Patrick Ness's A Monster Calls didn't win anything, for crying out loud, in the Printz sweepstakes. Cullen Witter lives in the sleepy little town of Lily, Arkansas, where nothing much happens until someone thinks he hears, and then sees a previously-thought-to-be-extinct species of woodpecker, in this book known as the Lazarus bird (think: ivory-billed woodpecker, or Lord God bird) just outside of town. But what is ravaging Cullen, and what makes him want to shoot the woodpecker in the face if he should ever run into it, is that his younger brother Gabriel has disappeared inexplicably and completely and no one has a clue how to find him. The Witters are a good family, loving and caring, and now swamped by grief and uncertainty. But there are friends to be had--Cullen's friend Lucas who promises Gabriel will come back and sleeps on the floor of his bedroom in support; Alma Ember, his unexpected, "partially married" girlfriend; the townspeople who don't really know what to say, but still say something.
Unlike many Young Adult books, this one is also funny, filled with the richness of family back and forth and the sometimes accidental hilarity of the teenage years. A separate narrative about a very odd religious quest vis-a-vis the apocryphal Book of Enoch finally melds into the main story with surprising consequences and revelations in an unlooked for but extraordinary ending. Some casual (though never graphic) sex makes this book off-limits for younger teens, but high-schoolers on up should find much nourishment in these pages. I hate to admit it, but the Printz committee got it just right.