Looking for Alaska by John Green

Just to set the record straight: the title refers not to the state but to a person named after the state. Strictly speaking, Alaska herself is never lost, merely her motive for doing the pivotal action in the book. (Spoilers below.)

As the book begins, Miles Halter is attending his local public day school and, being a bookish shy scrawny boy who collects ‘last words’ of famous people from their deathbeds, has few friends. His parents decide to send him to a small boarding school in Alabama for the greater socialization potential, and Miles, recognizing the chance for a new start, agrees…and after only two people attend his going away party, and that on their way somewhere else, even the readers have to agree that this may be a better start all ’round, even though it means going to another high school in his junior year.

Culver Creek proves at least somewhat of an improvement, not least because Miles gets on well with his roommate, Chip Martin, and Chip’s best friend, a senior girl named Alaska Young. (Keep an eye on her. Not surprisingly.) Chip’s earned the nickname of “The Colonel” because he plans out all of Alaska’s wild ideas for pranks; indeed, she is the queen of pranking in a school which, as do others, has a tradition of not only cliques but pranking animosity between those cliques. Here, the main divide is between the students who live far enough away from the school to be forced into staying over the weekends during term time and the kids who live close enough to escape to their parents’ luxurious air-conditioned homes.

Miles’ time at the school begins mixed: while he becomes bosom buddies with The Colonel, who nicknames him “Pudge” because he is so scrawny, the “Weekend Warriors” go a bit beyond the usual initiation rites of a new student and do not merely dump him in the pond but wrap him in duct tape beforehand so he resembles nothing more than a mummy. He nearly drowns, but wriggles ashore and squirms to safety, at which point The Colonel and Alaska declare an all-out, year-long pranking war on the Weekend Warriors. Academically, the school proves more challenging and more interesting to Miles, not least his comparative religion class, taught by an elderly man who’s lost a lung. Miles’ interest in people’s last words have lead to a deeper curiosity about what happens after death, and the different answers religions have come up with, and not surprisingly this class feeds straight into that interest.

His friendship with Chip and Alaska grows as the year goes on; they go to Chip’s home for Thanksgiving. (Well, really his trailer, and not the mobile home sort either. We’re talking the sort of cap trailer that people haul with their pickup trucks; this is all Chip’s mother can manage, and Chip sleeps outside in a tent–not so much a hardship in the South.) Back at school, they sink back into the school rounds of classes, crummy meals and going back to dorm rooms to amuse themselves with activities their parents are better off not knowing about. One night’s drinking transmutes into a tipsily honest game of Truth or Dare, in which Alaska confesses that her mother died of an aneurysm some years previously, while the eight-year-old Alaska looked on, frozen in horror. Her father’s first reaction upon coming home was to yell at Alaska for NOT calling 911. Alaska has never lived this down, and each year on the anniversary of her mother’s death, she goes to the grave and leaves a bouquet of white flowers. A couple of weeks after Thanksgiving, after another evening (and early morning) of heavy drinking, Alaska bolts from the school campus after a call from her college boyfriend crying something about “I forgot! It’s too late!”

…and plows her car into a state trooper’s car, parked at the side of the road where the officer had left it after arriving at the scene of another previous accident. The officer and the other drivers are fine, but Alaska died almost instantly, before the officer whose car had been collided with even managed to take in that there had been a crash.

Chip and Miles investigate the incident as best they can, but the best they can come up with is that Alaska had forgotten to put flowers on her mother’s grave that year, and that’s where she may have been going…but it may have been Alaska’s own wish for death that led her to drive while intoxicated. They’ll never know. Realizing that there’s nothing more to be done, they determine to carry out Alaska’s last and greatest prank, which she’d been planning for their graduation ceremony: hire a male stripper to perform at the ceremony. Which they do, under the guise of a psychology professor reading his preliminary paper.

This is not a book suited for preserving the innocent ignorance of readers about what goes on in boarding schools. The kids smoke, the kids drink, the kids run around with each other after lights-out and play nasty pranks on each other. Having never attended one at the grade level in question, I can’t attest to the truth of Looking for Alaska, but I’d bet that John Green isn’t as far off the mark about students do in boarding schools as parents would like to think. Perhaps not to the extreme that this book takes the logic chain, but certainly smoking’s there and drinking. Since when has it not been?

It’s the sort of book that older teens would enjoy, if they like book discussion type books, but which will cause great controversy among the more conservative Responsible Adults in the community. Looking for Alaska involves smoking, drinking, obscenity, teenagers pranking each other, and culminating with a death which might be a form of suicide or might be the result of drinking and driving….all of which might place it firmly in the adult collection of a library, or perhaps might inspire progressive educators to give it to those very teens whose parents are horrified by such things. Not to lead said teens astray, mind. Rather to show the kids something they may want to know: they are not invulnerable.


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