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100 Sideways Miles, Andrew Smith
Simon & Schuster, September 2014
Reviewed from final copy

If you were a teenager who spent at least one long night with friends discussing the future, destiny, and the fear that you can’t control the course of your life, 100 Sideways Miles probably reminded you of those moments. Finn Easton, the novel’s narrator, is a teen deeply concerned about his place in the universe and whether or not he has any say in his fate. Some of the themes Andrew Smith is thinking about in Grasshopper Jungle recur here—specifically connection and friendship; however, while Grasshopper Jungle takes quite a cynical view of human nature, 100 Sideways Miles has the kind of hopeful ending that feels like a beginning.

I have a feeling that this book’s optimism is a factor in why Andrew Smith’s second novel of 2014 has five stars to its predecessor’s three. (And just for reference, last year’s Winger was a three star book in addition to being a BFYA top ten pick.) Obviously, we can’t actually know why this book received more stars than Grasshopper Jungle, and I don’t want to fill too much space comparing the two novels, but I think it’s worth noting that while I think Grasshopper Jungle is the better book, I preferred 100 Sideways Miles.

Liking the novel actually makes it harder for me to critique (it always does). The story meanders and has that “slice-of-life” feel with just enough quirk—Michael Easton’s novel, The Lazarus Door and it’s connection to Finn’s scar, for example. The oddest bit of story is perhaps the inclusion of the real-life disaster of the St. Francis dam as an important historical reference for Finn. Not much actually happens in the book, but there’s nothing predictable about the plot. If anything, it’s uneven in the surprising plot turns.

It’s that roughness though that makes the themes work. Like Austin Szerba, Finn sees the world through a lens that extends beyond his day-to-day life. The universe as knackery—this is how he sees the world, and he thinks about time not in the personal measurement of seconds, but in the more abstract, global measurement of miles the earth has traveled. It makes sense that Finn would think like this because while he recognizes the constant movement and change of the universe, seeing his own life as inert. This is actually just a part of Finn’s larger problem of feeling like he’s a character trapped in his father’s novel. The metaphor is a little too on-the-nose for my taste, but the major theme in this book is becoming the author of your own story. By the end of the novel, Finn travels, he acts heroically, he goes after the girl he loves; all decisions that add up to him controlling his life and making it into what he wants. He’s motivated, by the other major theme in the novel: love. Finn goes from feeling alienated to connected. The execution isn’t subtle or nuanced, but more than that the ideas are simple; not exactly what you would expect in an unusual little story like this.

For Printz consideration, the depiction of epilepsy would have to get close scrutiny. Knowing very little about the disorder, some of the details that Smith describes certainly raised my suspicion. For example, would someone really smell flowers just before a seizure? And I simply rejected the idea that any parent would let their epileptic child (regardless of age) sleep in the top bunk of a bunk bed. These moments made me pause and took me out of the story, which is never a positive for a contender.

The other major element that takes this book out of Printz consideration, in my opinion, is the character development. Finn is interesting, but he’s also our narrator and therefore, the character we get to spend the most time with. All of the other characters are flat and unchanging. They exist so that Finn has people to interact with, but it’s hard to imagine them with lives of their own.

Andrew Smith’s a great writer with an original mind and I hope to see him recognized by the committee this year. But, and this is despite my fondness for it, maybe not for this novel.


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