Alaska Young, coming of age, Existentialism, famous last words, Finding Answers in Looking for Alaska by John Green: Review, Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature, miles halter
John Green’s first novel, Looking for Alaska, is an inspiring coming of age tale, which follows in the tradition of The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger and A Separate Peace by John Knowles. Each word jumps off the page and into the hearts and minds of readers. The struggles of long and lanky Miles Halter, his rebellious roommate Chip, and the beautiful and bright Alaska Young are divided into two categories: 1. normal teenage issues from peers to teachers and grades 2. life’s most difficult existential mysteries involving man’s search for meaning, love, and death.
Miles arrives at the private boarding school his father attended before him, Culver Creek, in search of “the Great Perhaps.” An avid reader of biographies, Miles is drawn to people’s last words, and he is convinced last words supply a picture of another person’s life and struggles. The most memorable line in Miles’ memory bank contains the last words of Francois Rabelais: “I go to seek the Great Perhaps (5).” Similar to other literary figures before him, Miles is compelled to search for the truth about life. When he meets the girl he falls in love with, Alaska, she has piles of books scattered among the other possessions in her dorm room. She calls them her “Life’s Library.” Alaska’s favorite text, written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is also based on non-fiction, The General in His Labyrinth. Alaska shares her belief that Simon Bolivar’s last words, “How will I ever get out of this labyrinth (19),” refer to inevitable human suffering.
Although the young people spend much of their time rebelling against authority, especially the Dean of Students, whom they refer to as “The Eagle,” they are also intelligent and reflective. What at first seems like teenage angst being let loose on alcohol and cigarettes, soon becomes a coping mechanism for the issues the characters have no capacity to understand or deal with. Alaska and Chip are poor scholarship students who don’t fit in with the privileged “Weekday Warriors” who return home to mansions in Birmingham each weekend. What’s more they have both lost a parental figure, Chip as a result of abuse and divorce and Alaska as a result of her mother’s brain aneurysm and death when she was eight.
Green divides the novel into two portions: Before and After. As the countdown to an enigmatic incident approaches, the reader expects the Prank to be the end of the countdown, while secretly hoping for something more. The Prank, which may get them expelled, and is certain to have an impact, is designed by Alaska and Chip. It is a method of retaliation not only against the rich kids who torment them, but also against sadness and intolerance. This plan becomes a distraction for the main event or climax of the novel.
The author strategically interweaves an exam question that is posed by ‘the Old Man’, Dr. Hyde, in religious studies class with Miles and Alaska’s analyses regarding life: “What is the most important question a human being must answer. Choose your question wisely, and then examine how Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity attempt to answer it (54).” Thus, the manner a group of high school students will use to decipher one of life’s most challenging questions becomes the most important aspect of the text.
Green surprises his readers with a response to the questions that plague his young characters. Just as Miles thinks he sees the light at the end of the tunnel, Alaska disappears one night, and is killed instantly in a car crash. In a manner that is familiar to readers both young and old, the author provides a disturbing and warranted reaction among Alaska’s friends who are left behind to grieve her loss. The series of emotions and thoughts vexing Miles and Chip cause the reader to empathize and recall similar overwhelming instances. They experience memories of joy with a girl gone too soon, guilt about letting her drive to her death, anger that she was reckless, and fear that Alaska is lost forever.
As the boys search for and uncover reasons why Alaska drove off drunk and angry to her death, they only find more unsolvable puzzles. For Miles, the dreams and adventures he sought with the girl, his idea of “the Great Perhaps,” died along with Alaska. He recalls, “Now she was gone and with her my faith in Perhaps (172).” In Dr. Hyde’s final exam, the students are asked another question, and this time it is about perseverance: “What is your cause for hope (216)?” In considering the most difficult questions and emotions a person faces in life, Miles decides that maybe he can continue on without Alaska, if in times of darkness, he forgives her. He knows she forgives him, and that has to be enough.
Final Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
For more information: