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.
In this darkly humorous debut, Whaley weaves two stories into a taut and well-constructed thriller. Acerbic 17-year-old aspiring writer Cullen Witter narrates the first, bemoaning the tedium of smalltown life ("Living in Lily, Arkansas, is sometimes like living in the land that time forgot"), until the Lazarus woodpecker, thought to be extinct, allegedly reappears, and his 15-year-old brother, Gabriel, goes missing. The alternating story line, told in an ominous third-person voice, begins with the story of Benton Sage a failed teenage missionary, who leaves Ethiopia for the University of Atlanta but it soon veers in unexpected directions as the action converges on the town of Lily. 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 (Gabriel, the Lazarus woodpecker, the apocryphal Book of Enoch), as Whaley gradually brings the story's many threads together in a disturbing, heartbreaking finale that retains a touch of hope. Ages 14 up.