Module 7: Looking for Alaska by John Green

Book Cover Image:

alaska

 Image Credit: Campbell County Public Library. (2015) http://www.ccpls.org.

Book Summary:

In Looking for Alaska, we meet Miles Halter as he is about to embark on an adventure that will propel him, in his words, into “the Great Perhaps.”  Miles is a student of last words; he reads biographies only to find out what, at the moment of death, were the utterances of people from all walks of life.  And when he read the last words of Francois Rabelais – “I go to seek the Great Perhaps.” – Miles adopts this philosophy as a reason to leave behind his milque-toast life in Florida and attend Cutter Creek Academy, a boarding school in Alabama.

At Cutter Creek, Miles experiences both the academic challenge and the lack of parental supervision that boarding school offers.  For the first time in his life, he makes friends:  Takumi; Lara; his roommate, Chip – better known as the Colonel; and Alaska.  Alaska, a clever, funny, messed-up girl with a penchant for pranks and other illicit teen pleasures, also loves books.  Her entire dorm room is filled with them – what she calls her “Life Library.” As far as last words go, Alaska knows only those of one person, and she’s not even sure if they’re historically accurate: according to a famous novel about Simon Bolivar, the general’s dying expression was “How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?”  Alaska takes this to mean the labyrinth of suffering that is a part of human life, and Alaska has had plenty of suffering in her own.

At Culver Creek, besides the regular academic subjects offered at most high schools, students also take a comparative religion class. This turns out to be Miles’ favorite, partly because it lets him think about the Great Perhaps. For their midterm paper, the aging professor requires the students to compose what they think is the most important question human beings have to answer, and then to consider how the three major world religions have answered that question. Miles centers his paper on what happens after life, the ultimate Great Perhaps.

When the time comes to assign the end-of-year paper, the religion professor has a new question for the students to answer.  The question was both the thesis of Alaska’s midterm paper; and probably Alaska’s last question:  “How will I ever get out of the labyrinth of suffering?”

For Alaska Young, the answer seems to have been “straight and fast.”  Her friends spend most of the second semester of school trying to determine whether Alaska’s end was intentional or accidental — a “suident or accicide.”  In the end, however, they determine that it doesn’t really matter.  What matters more is that they had a friend named Alaska, that she made some terrible mistakes, and that they forgive her – and one another.

 APA Reference of Book:

Green, J. (2005). Looking for Alaska. New York, NY: Dutton Children’s Books.
 

Impressions:

It was with a somber heart that I read John Green’s Looking for Alaska (2005).  From the beginning of the novel, the ominous chapter titles –  titles such as “one hundred thirty-six days before,” and “nine days after” —  imply that tragedy will strike at some point.  Unfortunately, the book’s tragedy is all-too-common in my community, and in our nation.

Green’s novel explores the tragedy of adolescent suicide from the viewpoint of those friends who, left behind, wonder how they failed to read the signs.  Some even wonder if Alaska’s death was really a suicide, as she always seemed so vivacious, despite the awful pain she’d endured.   In my experiences, helping three of my teenage daughters through the suicides of three different friends, the emotions that Green’s characters experience are exactly what my daughters have felt:  a sense of failing their friend; confusion; shock; a feeling of “but he always seemed so happy.” Miles and his friends express all of these emotions, and more, after Alaska dies. Green captures quite accurately what the teens who are left behind go through.

He also captures Alaska – both the crazy, reckless nature of a girl who is trying to mask her pain from herself and others, and the deep, introspective brooding of a troubled soul with no firm grasp to pull her out of “the labyrinth.”  Green draws Alaska with such realism that the reader connects with her, cares for her, and mourns her when she dies.

As Miles writes his final paper, he thinks of Alaska:  “. . . if Alaska took her own life, that is the hope I wish I could have given her. Forgetting her mother, failing her mother and her friends and herself — those are awful things, but she did not need to fold into herself and self-destruct. Those awful things are survivable, because we are as indestructible as we believe ourselves to be.  . . . We need never be hopeless, because we can never be irreparably broken.” At least for Miles, the labyrinth comes to represent not only the condition of human suffering, but also the conditions of friendship, adventure, and love.

In the end, it seems, there are no right answers for the question of how to escape from suffering.  There is instead just a choice to go on living. The Colonel sums it up best when he says, “After all this time, it still seems to be that ‘straight and fast’ is the only way out — but I choose the labyrinth.  The labyrinth blows, but I still choose it.”

As a mom, an educator, and a librarian, I wish we could tell all the  Alaskas in our world that we just want them to choose the labyrinth.

Professional Review:

” Sixteen-year-old Miles Halter’s adolescence has been one long nonevent -no challenge, no girls, no mischief, and no real friends. Seeking what Rabelais called the ‘Great Perhaps,’ he leaves Florida for a boarding school in Birmingham, AL. His roommate, Chip, is a dirt-poor genius scholarship student with a Napoleon complex who lives to one-up the school’s rich preppies. Chip’s best friend is Alaska Young, with whom Miles and every other male in her orbit falls instantly in love. She is literate, articulate, and beautiful, and she exhibits a reckless combination of adventurous and self-destructive behavior. She and Chip teach Miles to drink, smoke, and plot elaborate pranks. Alaska’s story unfolds in all-night bull sessions, and the depth of her unhappiness becomes obvious. Green’s dialogue is crisp, especially between Miles and Chip. His descriptions and Miles’s inner monologues can be philosophically dense, but are well within the comprehension of sensitive teen readers. The chapters of the novel are headed by a number of days “before” and “after” what readers surmise is Alaska’s suicide. These placeholders sustain the mood of possibility and foreboding, and the story moves methodically to its ambiguous climax. The language and sexual situations are aptly and realistically drawn, but sophisticated in nature. Miles’s narration is alive with sweet, self-deprecating humor, and his obvious struggle to tell the story truthfully adds to his believability. Like Phineas in John Knowles’s “A Separate Peace”(S & S, 1960), Green draws Alaska so lovingly, in self-loathing darkness as well as energetic light, that readers mourn her loss along with her friends.”

Review Source:
Lewis, J. (2005, February 1) Review: Looking for Alaska. [A review of the book Looking for Alaska by J. Green] School Library Journal. Retrieved from http://bookverdict.com.

Library Uses:

Create a book display for National Suicide Prevention/Awareness Month in September; feature Looking for Alaska, along with other titles about teen suicide and the survivors.  Some possibilities include Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher; Impulse by Ellen Hopkins; Where She Went by Gayle Forman; and Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson.

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