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.
1. The Book of Enoch, Gabriel, and the Fallen Angels are themes that tie together many of the main characters in complex ways. How do you view and interpret this element of the book as it relates to specific characters’ lives, to the meaning of religion, and to the intelligence and potential of humankind?
2. Cabot Searcy takes on a mission he believes was Benton’s idea. Why do you think Cabot becomes so obsessed with the Book of Enoch? Was he crazy? A religious zealot? Or was he simply a misguided soul looking for his own second chance?
3. Over the course of the novel, Cullen exhibits cynicism, hope, idealism, and sometimes despair. Is he acting out the stages of grief over his missing brother, or is he simply a typical, unhappy teenager trying to figure out his life? Think of the other missing brothers and sons in the novel (Oslo, Lucas's brother, Benton Sage)—what is the significance of these characters’ stories? How do they relate to the themes of desperation and second chances that are explored in the story?
4. Cullen has a very deep and loving connection with his brother, Gabriel. In what ways do Cullen and Gabriel appear to be a typical pair of teenage brothers? In what ways does their relationship strike you as unique or special?
5. Lily, Arkansas, is a town where things come back—both in a positive and negative sense. Discuss both sides of this theme and the implications for the town of Lily. Do you think that Cullen Witter will end up staying in Lily?
6. The author calls Where Things Come Back a book about second chances. What are some of the second chances that characters get in this novel? Specifically consider John Barling and Benton Sage in addition to the main characters. Are they always successful? Do things always turn out as they hope?
7. What is the significance of the Lazarus woodpecker—the bird that caused such excitement in the town of Lily, but which never actually existed there? How can the Lazarus be interpreted symbolically?
8. The author describes many different kinds of love in this story: parental love, fraternal love, romantic love, and love for God. What does the novel say about each?
9. Consider the somewhat secondary female cast of Where Things Come Back—Ada Taylor, Alma Ember, and others—and their influence on the male characters of the story.
10. Cullen and Gabriel both find comfort in music throughout the novel. What is the significance of the various lyrics quoted within Cullen’s narrative, and how do they relate to the scenes in which they are used?
11. Consider the format of the novel and the movement of time: how we alternate between Cullen, Benton, and Cabot’s stories, and between first and third person narrators, until the story lines converge at the very end. How did the author's approach to time affect your reading and comprehension of the novel? How did you anticipate that the various narrative threads would intersect or be resolved?
12. Discuss the quirks of Cullen’s voice—for example, his lists, his fantasies, his third-person phrasing. How did Cullen’s voice influence your view of his story? How does it help us understand his mindset as the narrator?
13. Cullen keeps a running list of titles for books that he could write in the future. Consider your own life, both important events and inconsequential moments, like Cullen does. What are some titles that would fit your personal story?
14. Where Things Come Back is Cullen's final title idea and becomes the title of this novel. What is the significance of this title being the final line of the book? What does it imply about what happens at the end of the novel?
This reading group guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.
John Corey Whaley grew up in Louisiana. His debut novel, Where Things Come Back, was the 2012 winner of the Michael L. Printz and the William C. Morris Awards. You can learn more about him at JohnCoreyWhaley.com and follow him on Twitter: @Corey_Whaley.
"Every now and then a book rises to the top. Where Things Come Back soars. Keep your eye on author Corey Whaley. That is, if you can see the stratosphere."
– Ellen Hopkins, New York Times bestselling author of the Crank Trilogy
“In this darkly humorous debut, Whaley weaves two stories into a taut and well-constructed thriller…Vulnerability balances Cullen's arch sarcasm, and the maelstrom of media attention lavished on the woodpecker offers an element of the absurd, especially when juxtaposed against the mystery of Gabriel's disappearance. The portentous tone and flat affect of Whaley's writing is well-suited to the story's religious themes and symbolism… as Whaley gradually brings the story's many threads together in a disturbing, heartbreaking finale that retains a touch of hope.”
– Publishers Weekly, April 11, 2011, *STAR
“In a build-up that explores the process of grief, second chances and even the meaning of life, Cullen’s and Cabot’s worlds slowly intersect and solve the mystery of Gabriel’s disappearance in this multilayered debut for sophisticated readers. Unexpected, thought-provoking storytelling.”
– Kirkus, April 15, 2011
“The characters’ reactions are palpable as their grief deepens and yet they continue to hope for Gabriel’s return. Cullen is an eloquent, thoughtful narrator…the ending is worth the wait.”
– School Library Journal, July 2011
"The author has managed to capture his characters’ feelings of loss and despair with both compassion and empathy. The plot is extremely well thought out and encompasses the tangle of teenage relationships, friendships, and life experiences using humor and thoughtful language...authentic, small-town teenagers; and the main protagonist, Cullen, is well-developed and convincing. An unexpected ending brings about a moving close to the novel."
– VOYA, June 2011
“What will hold readers most is the moving story of Cullen’s beloved younger brother, who suddenly goes missing, leading to mystery, heartbreak, and an astonishing resolution on the very last page…An intriguing, memorable offering teens will want to discuss.”
– Booklist, May 2011
“[A] smart, darkly funny, and multilayered debut…. Whaley weaves numerous story lines and themes together with the confidence of a seasoned writer, resulting in a thought-provoking story about media, faith, and family.”
– Publishers Weekly, November 7, 2011, a "Best Books of 2011" selection