Study Guide

Where Things Come Back Themes

By John Corey Whaley

  • Family

    Even though our seventeen-year-old narrator may be loath to admit that he has all the warm and fuzzy feelings about his family, Cullen really is attached to his family in Where Things Come Back. He's basically best friends with his younger brother, Gabriel, and is completely devastated when he disappears without warning one day. He tries to take care of his mom and his Aunt Julia during their difficult family trials, and though Cullen has a rough and tumble relationship with his dad, at the end of the day, they're still on the same team.

    In short, those Witters stick together. Which is a good thing considering the predicament they find themselves in.

    Questions About Family

    1. How does Cullen's mom'srelationship with her sister change over the course of the novel?
    2. Why is Cullen so attached to his younger brother?
    3. Why does everyone in the family cope differently with Gabriel's disappearance?
    4. Why is Benton's family so mean to him? 

    Chew on This

    The close bond between Gabriel and Cullen transcends mere brotherhood; they're also best friends and need each other to feel right in the world.

    Even though Cullen's mom acts like nothing is wrong after Gabriel disappears, she is the family member who is actually suffering the most internally from his absence. 

  • Friendship

    They say one is the loneliest number… At the beginning of Where Things Come Back, Cullen Witter presents himself as somewhat of a lone wolf—he doesn't have that many friends outside of his brother, Gabriel, and their classmate Lucas. But the friends Cullen does have stick by him through thick and thin; when Gabriel goes missing, Lucas and Mena are there every step of the way to help find him. In a parallel story, we get to see the unlikely friendship between Benton Sage and his roommate Cabot Searcy—which changes the course of Cabot's life forever. 

    Questions About Friendship

    1. Do you think that the friendship between Cabot and Bentonwas a healthy one? Why or why not?
    2. Why do you think Lucas is friends with Cullen and Gabriel?
    3. How does Cullen's impression of Mena Prescott change over the course of the book? 

    Chew on This

    Even though it often seems like Lucas is way too nice to Cullen and doesn't get anything in return, he's had a hard enough upbringing that his friendship with Cullen is actually what keeps him afloat.

    Cabot Searcy's friendship with Benton Sage is what brings about his downfall. After Benton's death, Cabot takes on all of the pain, suffering, and loneliness that Benton felt during his lifetime. 

  • Religion

    Hallelujah—the Judeo-Christian God is all over the pages of Where Things Come Back. From Benton Sage, a young missionary who winds up committing suicide, to his roommate, Cabot, who finds the Book of Enoch in Benton's belongings and dives into religious fervor, to the Witters in Lily who lose a son to Cabot thanks to said fervor—whether religion is explicitly discussed or just quietly driving the plot, there's pretty much no escaping it in this book. And it isn't necessarily presented in a favorable light, either. 

    Questions About Religion

    1. Do you think that Benton Sage's family is right in persecuting him because he doesn't live up to their religious ideals?
    2. Why do you think the Book of Enoch becomes so important to Cabot?
    3. How is Cabot's religious journey like that of the woodpecker-seekers in Lily, Arkansas? 

    Chew on This

    The search for the Lazarus bird follows the same trajectory as Cabot's search for religious meaning in his life—even though they both come close to some kind of discovery, it ends in nothingness.

    Even though Cabot and Benton both see religion as a way to save themselves, their religious fanaticism ends up leading to their downfalls. 

  • Versions of Reality

    Talk about flights of fancy: Not everyone in Where Things Come Back has their feet firmly planted in reality. Benton and Cabot, for example, both get caught-up in their own religious fantasies, though each of these fantasies ultimately lead to pretty terrible developments in reality. And Cullen, who is generally Mr. Reality, lets his mind wander to different apocalyptic zombie scenarios when life gets too difficult. Throw a misguided psychic into the mix and a lying birder, and reality is definitely up for grabs in this book.

    Questions About Versions of Reality

    1. Why do you think Cullen comes up with so many different fake zombie scenarios?
    2. Do you think that Cabot was really called by God? Why or why not?
    3. Why does Cullen's dad end up hiring a psychic to find Gabriel?
    4. Why does Cullen's mom get so upset when Aunt Julia talks about believing that Gabriel is a baby in heaven? 

    Chew on This

    Cullen creates his zombie scenarios in order to escape reality. This is why his zombie scenes come to him more and more after his brother goes missing.

    Cabot is grounded in reality until Benton dies, but then he starts seeking explanations in the religious. By the time he's married Alma, he is living in his own world and cannot accommodate a real, healthy relationship. 

  • Sadness

    Spoiler alert: Where Things Come Back isn't exactly a happy, go-lucky tale. The book starts off with Cullen staring down at the body of his dead cousin, and things don't improve much from there. His little brother, Gabriel, promptly goes missing, making it The Worst Summer Ever. Everything that happens is clouded by this sense of loss—Cullen's family has lost two young people before their time, and no one knows how to cope. On top of that, Cullen also has to deal with heartbreak when the girl he's been pining after for all these years starts going out with him… only to leave him for her ex-boyfriend. That's harsh. Way harsh.

    Questions About Sadness

    1. How do Gabriel's different family members cope with his disappearance?
    2. Why does Cullen break down when Ada asks him about Gabriel?
    3. Do you think that Lucas is suffering from Gabriel's disappearance? Why or why not?
    4. How does Aunt Julia deal with her son's death? Do you think she'll ever be happy again? 

    Chew on This

    Cullen puts all of his hopes and dreams on Ada when Gabriel disappears, and wants her to bear the weight of his sadness. This becomes too much of a burden for her though, which is why she leaves him by the end of the book.

    Though Cullen's parents react to Gabriel's death in different ways—his dad becomes more active in looking for him, while his mom acts like nothing happened—they are both just trying to find ways not to be swallowed by their sadness and despair. 

  • Love

    There's a lot of love going around in Where Things Come Backbrotherly love, familial love, romantic love, and even friend love (or bromance, if you will). Cullen may be watching his life fall apart over the summer, but that doesn't mean he's not surrounded by people who care about him; his mom, dad, and aunt all absolutely love and care for both him and Gabriel. On top of that, he's got the best friend ever in Lucas, who comes around constantly to make sure that Cullen and his family are looked after. And even though what he has with Ada doesn't work out, at least he has the chance to experience romantic love during that tumultuous summer. 

    Questions About Love

    1. Do you think that Cullen is really in love with Ada? Why or why not?
    2. Why do you think Cabot and Alma's marriage ends up failing?
    3. What's the deal with Cullen and his dad? Why aren't they getting along? 

    Chew on This

    Cullen's love for his brother—and the hope that they'll find Gabriel—is what keeps him going even when everything in his life has become terrible.

    Even though Cabot thinks that he loves Alma, he actually only loves himself and the possibility of his own greatness. 

  • Mortality

    Because Where Things Come Back starts off with the narrator staring down at a dead body, the possibility of death and grief is always hanging over Cullen's head. It's a pretty grim idea to think of Gabriel dead once he's gone missing, but it's something that is always in the back of everyone's minds—even if they don't admit to it.

    Cabot, who causes Gabriel's disappearance, has also faced some mortality in his young life. He's dealt with the sudden suicide of his college roommate, an event that changes him forever, ushering in his transformation from ordinary fun-loving college student to someone who believes that God is trying to speak to him. Maybe this is the only way he can make sense of his dear friend's death, but on the flip side, it's also what leads Cullen and his crew to wondering whether Gabriel's dead.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. Why does the book open up with Oslo's death?
    2. Do you think that Cullen and his parents ever believe that Gabriel is dead?
    3. Why is Cullen's mom so mad at Aunt Julia when she talks about Gabriel being in heaven?
    4. Why do you think Benton commits suicide? 

    Chew on This

    Cabot turns to religion and the Book of Enoch after Benton's death because it is the only way he can make sense of his friend's suicide and Benton's family's cold reaction.

    The book opens up with Oslo's death in order to prepare the reader for the coming death and disappearance of two other young men—Benton and Gabriel. 

  • Lust

    It's summertime in Lily, and sex is in the air. Since we've got ourselves a hot-blooded teenage boy as our narrator in Where Things Come Back, it makes sense that we get a lot of insight into Cullen's sexual desires. From the memory of his first sexual encounter, to his clumsy attempts to date Alma, to his final goal—sleeping with Ada—we get to see Cullen's, er, journey. Even as he works through his grief and anger at the world, we also get to see his sexual side—which is the side of him that's growing up and moving on, despite Lily's attempts to hold him back. 

    Questions About Lust

    1. Why does Cullen start laughing after the first time he has sex?
    2. What attracts Alma to Cabot in the first place? What attracts her to Cullen?
    3. Do you think that Cullen's relationship with Ada is mostly sexual? 

    Chew on This

    Alma pursues Cullen because he represents the opposite of what she's running away from in Cabot. He is mild-mannered, young, and does not want to have sex with her right away.

    Even though Cullen claims to love Ada, he sees her as more of a fulfillment of his sexual and romantic fantasies than a real person. 

  • Coming of Age

    When Where Things Come Back opens up, Cullen, his brother, and their friends are all in that in-between phase between childhood and adulthood, some itching to leave their small town in Arkansas and take on the world, but all doing the good, hard—and at times awkward—work of growing up.

    In the parallel narrative, the characters are trying to grow up, but with mixed results. Alma goes to college, but ends up married, divorced, and right back where she started; Benton becomes a missionary to please his parents, but ends up disappointing them (and himself) more than ever when he returns. To put it mildly, no one said that growing up is easy. 

    Questions About Coming of Age

    1. What do you think Cullen learns during the summer of his brother's disappearance?
    2. Why does Alma end up leaving Lily? How does doing so change her?
    3. How do you think Benton's journey as a missionary changes his way of thinking about life? 

    Chew on This

    Although Benton Sage goes on his mission to make his parents proud, part of the growth that he undergoes on the trip leads to the realization that he will never be able to live up to their expectations.

    Cullen cannot fall in love with Alma Ember because she represents his greatest fear in growing up—someone who tries to leave Lily in order to better herself, but ultimately fails. 

  • Isolation

    The small town blues are a real thing, so even though community and family are both strong in Lily, many characters in Where Things Come Back are living in painful loneliness. Cullen and his friends are all teenagers stuck in a place they don't want to be, which makes them feel isolated and misunderstood to begin with. Things only get worse when Cullen's family loses Gabriel; with him gone, everyone is stuck in their own private misery, and even being around other people doesn't alleviate the pain and loneliness. 

    Questions About Isolation

    1. Why do you think Cabot is so shaken by the loss of his roommate and the failure of his young marriage?
    2. Do you think that Ada's reasons for leaving Cullen are right? Why or why not?
    3. How does the family dynamic change when Gabriel disappears?
    4. Do you think Aunt Julia should continue to live by herself now that Oslo is dead? Why or why not? 

    Chew on This

    When Gabriel disappears, it highlights the loneliness that Cullen already feels in Lily, Arkansas. Without his brother there, he can't hide from the fact that he doesn't have many deep connections in this town.

    Despite the fact that he comes from a rich family and has many friends in college, Cabot is shaken to the core when Bennett dies because he realizes that someone can die without being terribly missed by those close to them.