**There are some slight spoilers ahead, though I’ll try to keep it to a minimum**
John Green‘s Looking for Alaska is one of those books that comes along every once in awhile that is really, truly meaningful and affecting. It’s about the beginning of a relationship, the end of one, and terrible consequences to a horrific situation.
Miles Halter has no friends, and he never really has. He’s never really fit in, and his life seems to be rather empty where he is. He has decided to define his life through reading biographies and memorizing the last words of the men and women about whom he reads. So, in order to finally make a change, he decides to attend Culver Creek, the boarding school which is father had once attended in Alabama. He intends to–in the last words of Francois Rabelais–“seek a Great Perhaps.”
As Miles settles in at Culver Creek, he gets acquainted with his new roommate Chip (a.k.a. “The Colonel”), Takumi, Lara, and a striking, quirky, interesting girl named Alaska Young. In addition to (mostly) attending classes, the group smokes while dodging the watchful eye of The Eagle (the headmaster), drinks a bit too much, and plans elaborate pranks. Miles has fallen in love with Alaska, though she has a boyfriend, and Miles is kind of dating Lara. One night, Alaska is tragically taken from them in a horrific accident.
This hurls the group of friends into a chasm of questions, trying to make sense of their loss. The remaining third of the novel follows them as they piece together the last moments of Alaska’s life, attempting to understand whether or not her death was suicide, alcohol-related, or just a dark twist of fate. They place blame everywhere, but primarily on themselves. Could they have stopped her? Should they have? Was it a foreseeable incident?
Punctuated by a motif of quotations of different last words, as well as a countdown of “days before,” the foreshadowing was there for all to see, yet that made the disaster no less tragic or difficult. The revelation of Alaska’s death is one of the more moving and heart-wrenching scenes I’ve read.
This is a novel which every teenager should read. It puts forth some difficult ideas, such as frank (though not erotic) situations of teenage sexuality, and the terrible, lasting consequences of the choices we make. Many people criticize Young Adult literature for its often up-front treatment of teenage sexuality, and sometimes I see their point. When a book shows that there are no consequences for actions, when it glamorizes choices that should be thought through and carefully weighed, I think that book fails. In no way does this book fail. It is quite clear that mistakes are made, that sex should not simply be an act, but a component of a well-rounded, mature relationship.
Moreover, the consequences of teen drinking are clear and calamitous, that they impair judgment and should not be imbibed by those without the capacity for handling it properly. There is also a fair amount of language, but the question should be asked: does a book like this influence such language, or does it demonstrate a real idea of what many teens are like?
Below is a video response that John Green posted to a group of people who sought to ban Looking for Alaska from their children’s school. Some teachers planned (and ultimately succeeded) in teaching this book, which I think is fantastic. As a teacher myself, I often read a book and think, “I’d love to teach this!” That thought ran through my head throughout most of this novel. Someday I will, when I can make it fit.
Until I do, I maintain that older teens–particularly those just about to leave for college–should read this. It’s mostly rated PG-13, though it stretches that a few times. The video below speaks to that, and I completely agree. Don’t condescend to teens; they should be able to read this and not take it as a how-to manual for how to mess up their lives by taking advantage of unsupervised time. Rather, it is a cautionary tale that is timeless, that could have been inspired by true events.
I loved this book, and I’m now continuing my John Green streak, starting with An Abundance of Katherines, with Paper Towns.
By the way, the “Hank” to whom he keeps speaking is his brother:
Hank and John Green are nerdy brothers who make videos. Really, it’s not about anything in particular. Whether we’re talking about our lives, making each other laugh, or trying to get something more important across, people seem to enjoy it. (http://www.youtube.com/vlogbrothers)
Their videos are hilarious and always both funny and informative.