Thanks to Charlaine Harris and the duo of Cami Garcia and Margaret Stohl (Beautiful Darkness, Beautiful Creatures) the modern Southern Gothic novels are going to have a nice bit of space on our bookshelves.
John Corey Whaley's debut novel Where Things Come Back is an excellent addition to this tradition. While the story occurs in Arkansas, Charlaine Harris's neck of the woods, there's still the element of the slow boil, religious element, and strong family that you often see in Southern stories.
About the only feature Lily, Arkansas has in abundance is trees. So seventeen-year-old Cullen Witter thinks. Everything changes when a reclusive ornithologist named Dr. John Barling comes to town and discovers the long-dead Lazarus woodpecker living in those trees.
Next thing you know, the name "Lazarus" is applied to everything in Lily from burgers to a carnival. And Cullen's praying that the Lazarus miracle will happen for his missing brother, Gabriel, who looks eerily like him, but Cullen believes is the better person.
Cullen's life is having a carnival ride life, experiencing love for the first time while seeing his own family deteriorate over the loss of two young men. The story's dark and yet has that odd Arkansas humor that creeps up and makes you laugh at odd moments.
Where Things Come Back reminds me somewhat of Stand by Me probably because the story begins with Cullen and his family viewing the body of his cousin, Oslo, who died due to drugs. It's a grisly beginning and the inevitable end for a young man who wasted his chance. But there's also the bonding of friends and family evidenced by Cullen's brotherly love for Gabriel and his friendship with Lucas Cader, who keeps him going through the roughest times.
This book is for the sophisticated young adult reader who's a bit tougher, with a bit of a dark sense of humor, and can appreciate the nuances of a textured life. There's some strong language and adult content within the pages. In my opinion, the content is probably not worse than many kids younger than Cullen's seventeen years have experienced from the media.
My one issue with the book is that I really wish the chapters had been dated. I found myself having to stop and sort out timelines for myself while I was reading. In the end, I would still strongly suggest Where Things Come Back to the audience I listed above. I actually wish I could have read the story when I was Cullen's age.
Rebecca Kyle, August 2011