The summer before his senior year, Cullen Witter’s sleepy Arkansas hometown implodes with changes. His cousin dies of a drug overdose. An extinct woodpecker is spotted by a smarmy nature enthusiast. And Cullen’s sensitive, insightful younger brother goes missing.
Woven through this summer tale of loss and love is another seemingly unrelated story about a missionary just returned from Ethiopia, his jaded college roommate and a girl who returns to Cullen’s town following a failed marriage. These threads loop together forming a story as unexpected as the sighting of a bird thought long-dead.
I found Cullen’s character to be alternately charming and obnoxious. His relationships with his family members and best friend were sweet and warming. Outside those treasured few he cared about, he seemed frustrated and judgmental. Protagonists should, of course, have flaws, but I was disappointed that he didn’t seem to grow beyond those in any sense. Cullen’s brother was probably my favorite character. He added brief insights into the things going on around him in this simple, organic way.
The parts of the story about the missionary and his experience were really interesting and always turned in a direction I wouldn’t have predicted. I liked the way Whaley would take familiar story elements (a Christian missionary, a small southern town) and spin them into something unexpected. This is a novel with some dark moments but also some real mystical beauty. This is, above all, a story about finding hope in the most unlikely places.
Profanity/Crude Language Content
Mild profanity used moderately. Main character frequently refers to people on his nerves as an “ass-hat.” While at first this seemed different and maybe a bit clever, it was kind of overdone.
Brief references to sex. Cullen spends the night at a girl’s house and has sex with her – the event isn’t described. He does offer a short description of an intense sexual exchange with a girl along a riverbank.
A bright-eyed missionary becomes frustrated when it turns out the bulk of his work is providing food for the needy rather than collecting salvation prayers. His partner tries to reassure him of the importance of feeding the hungry.
After coming upon a passage from the book of Enoch in the Ethiopian Orthodox bible, a seminary student believes angels would teach humans how to be like God if they hadn’t been stopped by the angel Gabriel.
A young man dies by suicide by jumping from a bell tower. No details of the act or immediate aftermath. A kidnapped boy is held hostage by a violent, unpredictable man. Very few details of actual violence on the boy.
At the opening of the story, Cullen’s cousin dies of a drug overdose. He identifies his cousin’s body. Brief details given.