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.