Where Things Come Back

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
Where Things Come Back Book Poster Image
Unsettling tale of teen's small-town life is good but dark.

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age 15+
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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Aside from some excellent writing, there's no shortage of knowledge this book offers the interested reader, from obscure religious texts (the Book of Enoch) to pop culture (zombie movies) to ornithology (the slightly fictionalized return of the ivory-billed woodpecker in recent years). The reader who perseveres is almost certain to know quite a bit more about something esoteric by book's end, in addition to being quite unsettled.

Positive Messages

Cullen's devotion to his brother and his family despite the bizarre, absurd events that unfold, and the bond that connects family and friends in spite of everything, are real and tenacious. But a pervasive dysfunction afflicts the entire universe within which this story takes place, and whether there is any point to any of it remains open to question. Good behavior doesn't necessarily get rewarded, nor does bad behavior necessarily have dire consequences; sometimes it appears no good deed goes unpunished.

Positive Role Models & Representations

The characters in Where Things Come Back, including the narrator/protagonist Cullen, are a candid mix of real-life qualities, rarely, if ever, simplistic. Cullen's insights into people's behavior and motivations are spot-on.


The book opens at the morgue with Cullen identifying the body of his cousin, who's died of a heroin overdose, in the course of which he has to pass another body, of a gunshot victim. There is a suicide early in the book. Cullen's brother Gabriel unaccountably disappears.  A girl for whom Cullen (along with every other teenage boy in town) has the extreme hots has already lost two boyfriends to untimely death, which does not deter her new suitors at all. Cullen is fascinated with zombies and imagines gory zombie movies featuring his friends and enemies.


Cullen has sex with two different young women in the course of story, one of whom is technically still married to another man at the time, although she's in the process of divorcing him. No graphic descriptions in the book, but there's a substantial amount of casual sex going on. 


"F--k," "s--t," and all the usual suspects and permutations, plus the more recent term "ass-hat." Frequent profanity definitely an issue here, but not inconsistent with the way teens actually talk in a lot of places. The language may be less an issue than the novel's overall darkness.


Whaley is hilarious in his mockery of consumer marketing, e.g. the ingenuity with which local vendors repackage their wares to take advantage of the woodpecker craze.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

The book starts out with Cullen's druggie cousin on a slab in the morgue. Cullen's best friend Lucas is the golden boy at school, but his secret is that all his family members are raging alcoholics and he's afraid he'll go the way of his older brother, killed while driving drunk. Drinking and drugs are just another dead end in Lily, and not viewed with approval.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that this is a quirky, funny, dark, profoundly unsettling book that starts with a cousin's dead body and continues to include a suicide, sex (not explicit), a beloved brother's disappearance, religious mania, zombie movies, and frequent profanity. The writing is good enough that the American Library Association gave this debut novel by young Southern author Whaley two awards, but it's not sunshine and butterflies.

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Teen, 15 years old Written byNameScreen June 17, 2012

'Where Things Come Back' Is a Fantastic Novel

For a first time author, John Corey Whaley's writing is suprisingly superb. What makes this book so excellent is that it is so realistic. Yes, it can get a... Continue reading

What's the story?

Normal dull life in Lily, AR, is thrown into chaos by the alleged sighting of a long-extinct woodpecker, bringing hordes of media, tourists, and local enterprise. Seventeen-year-old Cullen Witter is dealing with this newfound chaos, a host of adolescent issues, and his ne'er-do-well cousin's death from an overdose when his younger brother inexplicably disappears and his family starts falling apart. Meanwhile, in another time and place, a young missionary has a crisis of faith that will have a fateful impact on these events. Intertwined with all this: Cullen's lively fantasy life, often involving zombies and the woodpecker; also obscure religious texts and song lyrics.

Is it any good?

WHERE THINGS COME BACK is something of a critics' darling -- for good reason, as the quality of writing is well above that of most YA fiction. But it may be overly literary for some teens, who may wish the author would get on with the plot already. Parents may well blanch at the levels of profanity and violence, as well as the overall level of darkness. However, new author Whaley's ability to absolutely nail interesting aspects of human behavior makes it quite memorable.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how the disappearance of a family member affects everyone else in the family. Do you agree with what Cullen says, that what people most want in that situation is to be treated normally?

  • Gabriel's disappearance gets hardly any attention from the police and the media because everyone's hysterical over woodpecker sightings and the influx of tourists into town. Do you think that would happen in real life?

  • Has your town ever had a fad that made it go completely silly?

  • What do you think about small-town life? Dead end, or a safe, comfortable place to be?

Book details

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For kids who love literary fiction

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