In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Summer reading, fallen angels and woodpeckers

Dear Annie,

Here I am in Maine, with the usual several days of getting systems functional.  We have internet now -- and it has survived the first crashing thunderstorm.

I'm glad you've managed to revisit some more YA books of your youth.  Like you, I've started reading some books I'd set aside for this part of the summer.

Today's treat is 
Where Things Come Back
, a first novel by John Corey Whaley.  It provoked some cheerful speculation about the state of young people's literature when it won the Printz Award (best YA literature) in January.  It's a fascinating melange of philosophical musings, small town claustrophobia, family trauma, mystery and media spectacle.  Reminds me a bit of John Green books in the ways the characters are trying to make sense of their lives in trying circumstances.  Not as consciously intellectual, but wonderfully written.  I'm going to try to avoid spoilers in what follows, but am offering enough to let you know it's not just a nice book about a woodpecker.

We start with 17 year-old Cullen and his younger brother Gabriel, their good friend Lucas, their dead-from-an-overdose cousin and the hazing tensions of high school in a small Arkansas town.  Then a birdwatcher comes to town and claims to have spotted a rare bird which was believed to be extinct.  As the town slowly realizes the business potential involved, the boys resist the mounting enthusiasm.
It's hard to say what bothered me so much about John Barling and the whole bird thing without painting myself as an angry-for-no-real-reason teenager dressed in black and moping around like Charlie Brown all the time.  But it was the same for Gabriel, and Lucas, too.  It was as if we got the joke that everyone in town had been told.  We knew the punch line.  And it would've been much easier to sit back while all of Lily fell under the awe-inspiring spell of the possibility of second chances, or rebirth, but we just couldn't do it.  I may not have liked the people in Lily that much, but I felt sorry for anyone being massively scammed.
A new, apparently unrelated character pops up in a Georgia fundamentalist community: Benton Sage, who in alternating chapters goes on a mission to Ethiopia, becomes disillusioned, and is introduced to The Book of Enoch, a strange and ancient text about the fall of angels and God's reasons for sending the flood.  So we have an elusive bird redeeming a town called Lily, and searching-for-meaning Benton, when -- wham! -- Cullen's brother disappears.  Things become more confusing and scary.  Most of the book is from Cullen's perspective, muddling through an awful situation.  More characters appear.  The moment at which they all cross paths is a stunner.  But the point of the book isn't the solution to the mystery.

Near the end, Cullen speculates about the meaning of life.
I'll tell you now that I still don't know the meaning of mine.  And Lucas Cader, with all his brains and talent, doesn't know the meaning of his, either.  But I'll tell you the meaning of all this.  The meaning of some bird showing up and some boy disappearing and you knowing all about it.  The meaning of this was not to save you, but to warn you instead.  To warn you of confusion and delusion and assumption.... To warn you of two-foot-tall birds that say they can help, but never do.
Definitely worth putting on your next-summer list.



No comments:

Post a Comment