At first glance, Where Things Come Back is utterly boring. If I hadn’t been taking a class on the Printz Award, I would never have finished it.
By page five I hated the main character. Cullen is simply a pretentious writer stuck in a teenage body. He’s deeply introspective, in love with love, picked on by jocks, and hopelessly self-important. He’s comfortable with being “an insecure shell of a man” and goes so far as to pick friends who allow him to be this way. He’s misogynistic in his descriptions of Ada, his brusque toleration of Meena, and his ignorance of Laura Fish’s emotions. He broadens these offensive ideas to all women in this ridiculous statement, “Pretty girls always want guys who treat them, and most everyone else, like complete shit.”
His voice grated on my nerves. The “When one does X, he begins to imagine Y” pattern used to distance himself from his fantasies throws me out of the narrative many times. The insertion of super-extra-clever book titles for his journal sometimes make me want to gag. Zombies and dark humor just seem like a contrived part of this emo package.
The setting felt cliché. Lily is a tiny town where nothing important happens; however, this tiny town has much more than it’s fair share of tragedy. Teenagers regularly die, adults who desperately want to leave get stuck there, parents are abusive or alcoholic or absent, and by the end of the book, the biggest hope the town has had in its entire existence turns out to be false.
The interwoven plot was jarring at first. I had no idea there was a dual narrative to this book until I was jolted out of Lily, Arkansas and plopped down into third-world Africa. Even after several switches, when an experienced reader would be expected to easily shift mindsets between narratives, the completely disjointed plot still made me want to throw the book across the room. I didn’t begin to sympathize with plot B until late in his story when I read, “He had traveled halfway around the world, slept in dirt-floor huts, given food and water to the poor and dying, but still hadn’t impressed Mr. Jackson Sage.” I finally felt something for him, and stopped feeling like trashing the book, but I still had no clue why he was there.
As I rounded the corner to the second half of the book, I began to understand why it won an award. I was happily surprised by the beauty and style of lines like these:
“He imagines heaven to be not some huge city with streets of gold and tall, white building, but a simple room filled with just enough of the good people to make him smile and feel like the center of attention as he tells a funny joke or talks about a new idea for a book. He sees his brother standing in the corner wearing green flannel pajamas like he did at Christmas five years before, and he sees his mother and father holding hands at the kitchen sink as he caught them doing on time when he was eleven. He see Lucas Cader tossing a football across the room to his older brother Alex, who looked just like him, and he hears his aunt Julia singing a hymn that he heard in church when he was eight or so.”
“I was trying to figure who I was back then. Trying to figure out why I said and did the things I said and did. Trying to understand why I cried ten minutes after Lucas told me Ada was at Russell’s but never shed a tear when my cousin dropped dead. Wondering why I had written nearly ninety titles, but not one single book. Questioning why I couldn’t do a damn thing to bring my brother back.”
Cullen’s quiet, intense emotion broke through my spite and confusion and began to draw me in. The two plots began to come together. I couldn’t stop turning pages to find out what had really happened to Gabriel. The parallel of themes, the merging of disparate stories, the beauty of Cullen’s emotions gave the feel of something almost supernatural at play in the previously boring story.
When I finished the book, I had to stop and think for a long time. There are so many themes and symbols at play in this book, a literature class could probably spend an entire semester on it. The symbols of resurrection – Gabriel, the bird, the revived town, Benton’s crazy ideas, Russell, and even Cullen himself, combine to create magical realism. Whaley puts it this way, “things could come back from the dead, mistakes could be rectified, lives could be started over.” Whaley provides social commentary on short-lived fame, law enforcement, and religion. Themes include interconnected fates, false hope, cynicism, death, grief, and friendship. Cullen points out something important about the way other people handle grief:
“I wanted to be offered help from people because they cared about me, not because they felt some strange social obligation to do so. If you feel sorry for someone, don’t pretend to be happy. Don’t pretend to care only about their problems. People aren’t stupid. The world can’t be satisfied but that need to fix it all can.”
A more prominent theme, traceable through both stories is obsession. The townspeople are so obsessed with the bird, they overlook a 15-year-old’s disappearance. Cabot’s obsession is aptly described here: “He had taken Benton's notes and not blown them out of proportion so much as he had strapped an atom bomb to every letter of every word.”
Over all of this, the theme of second chances transcends the story. Cullen says, “People can’t give up on other people yet. We all get a second chance, you know. We get to start over like Noah after the flood. No matter how evil man gets, he always gets a second chance one way or another.” Second chances make this story something newer, something beautiful, something that deserves to be read a second time.