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.
I’d never heard of this book until the books for the Printz Award were announced this year, and what do ya know? This book claimed the top spot. So, I did a little snooping, thought the premise seemed kind of weird, and bought a copy for my Kindle. I mean, a book whose synopsis promises a mysterious disappearance, a crisis of faith, and woodpeckers is bound to be interesting, if nothing else, right?
Little did I know the impact that this book would have on me.
Weeks later, and I still can’t stop thinking about it. The plot is so completely unique that it’s almost unexplainable, but I’ll give it a shot: A boy, Cullen, lives in a podunk little town in Arkansas with his genius younger brother, Gabriel, who everyone adores. A man comes to town and claims to have seen a woodpecker that was thought to be extinct, instantly creating a whirlwind within the town. Suddenly, they’re news. Suddenly, they matter. In the thick of it all, Gabriel disappears.
Interspersed with this storyline is that of Benton Sage, a missionary who becomes more and more disillusioned during a missionary trip in Africa, and his college roommate. This is where the promised “crisis of faith” enters the novels, and boy does it make an entrance. Ever since Looking for Alaska by John Green (another must read and Printz winner), I’ve been intrigued by books with religious elements in them–I believe it adds much more depth, and it forces me to look at characters through certain lenses considering I’m not a religious person myself. But the religion found within this book concerning Christianity and the “lost” Book of Enoch was so fascinating, that I felt like I was also receiving a history lesson. And not in the dreadful Moby Dick sort of way.
At first, the two story lines seemed completely unrelated, but once the pieces began to fall into place, my stomach dropped. There was a lot of flipping (though I guess in my case, clicking) back to previous pages and, oh my God, there are the clues. The moment when the stories intertwine was the best of the novel, and maybe the redeeming factor.
Perhaps the biggest flaw in the novel is that it reads very, very slowly. And for a book that’s only 228 pages, that’s saying something. I found myself slogging through certain chapters, waiting for the REAL story to start. The story about faith and Gabriel and the woodpecker. This does not happen until around page 50. Whaley has a unique way of writing, for sure, and he intersperses titles of books that Cullen may use if he becomes a writer and fantasies about zombies into the story, giving the reader a break from the monotonous, sometimes flat narration. The characters were solid, but not wholly memorable. In fact, Gabriel and Cullen are the only characters I remember by name. (I had to search around to find Benton’s name, and Cullen’s love interests? May as well be nameless.) But that doesn’t mean they didn’t serve their purpose. They pushed the story forward, and I had no choice but to solve the mystery looming throughout the novel because of them.
This strikes me as a novel that will read better the second, third, however many more times I read it. It will allow more focus than I may have given it the first go around, and I think that when I do reread it, it’ll be in hardcopy. It’s probably just me, but I can’t focus very well with my Kindle, and this story seems better suited to a hardcopy. It’d make the constant page flipping much easier.
So, is it slow? Yes. But is it worth it? Definitely.