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Someday My Printz Will Come
Inside Someday My Printz Will Come

100 Sideways Miles

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 The oddest bit of story is perhaps the inclusion of the real-life disaster of the St. Francis dam as an important historical reference for Finn.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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About Joy Piedmont

Joy Piedmont is a librarian and technology integrator at LREI - Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School. Prior to becoming a librarian, Joy reviewed and reported for Entertainment Weekly’s PopWatch. She reviews for SLJ and is the President of the Hudson Valley Library Association. When she’s not reading or writing about YA literature, she’s compulsively consuming culture of all kinds, learning to fly (on a trapeze), and taking naps with her cat, Oliver. Find her on Twitter @InquiringJoy, email her at joy dot piedmont at gmail dot com, or follow her on Tumblr. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, HVLA or any other initialisms with which she is affiliated.

Comments

  1. Regarding the portrayal of epilepsy, are you aware of Disability in Kidlit? It’s a website I run with other YA authors, where we review MG/YA books featuring disabled characters. Notably, all reviews are done by people who share the same disability. We reviewed 100 Sideways Miles in October: https://disabilityinkidlit.wordpress.com/2014/10/03/elise-phalen-reviews-100-sideways-miles/

  2. Karyn Silverman says:

    So, I’m still reading it, but the epilepsy is proving to be a major distraction.

    Corinne, I did read the review at Disability in YA lit, and the reviewers comment about how great it was to see her own disability in a book, not portrayed as an awful thing, did resonate for me. However, she points out a major issue: he has seizures on a frequent basis, but there’s NO mention of medication.

    Full disclosure: I am the parent of an epileptic child. The fact that there is no mention of meds, that Finn’s seizures last long enough to potentially cause brain damage (or Smith is combining seizure and post-ictal states without seeming to realize it), that his parents — a protective, loving father and a NURSE — let him swim seemingly with little or no oversight or concern, that he sleeps in a top bunk: I just don’t buy it. Which in turn makes their characters utterly unbelievable.

    Joy, the aura (the flower smell) is, incidentally, one of the details that didn’t dump me right out into “this is all wrong!” territory. The descriptions of the seizures sound pretty spot on from my own research and observations of my own child, although mine hasn’t ever reported an olfactory aura. So the condition itself is depicted in a potentially accurate way. As I said above, it’s in the depiction of treatment that this falls apart. For me, that inaccuracy dumps this right off the table, no matter how good the rest of it is. It may be a great book, but it doesn’t deserve printz recognition with an issue this glaring.

    (And since it reads like Grasshopper Jungle 2, the bug-free version, I don’t know that I would say it’s so great anyway, because it reads like a retread in too many ways.)

    I’ll finish it, because it’s in our Pyrite AND our local in-person Mock lineup. But I’m having a hard time imagining the argument that would get me to move this into the serious contender pile.

    • It’s quite strange, as I believe Smith has said that his brother has epilepsy–so you’d think he understood how major the treatment thing is. It’s a major thing to just gloss over. A similar thing actually happened in another much-lauded YA that came out this year featuring a character with epilepsy (The Islands at the End of the World, which we’ll be running a review for later this year).

      Really frustrating/disappointing when some things are so right but other elements just completely ruin it. It’s not like we’ve got all that much quality disability rep out there to choose from.

      • Karyn Silverman says:

        Corinne, do you have a citation for the statement about the brother? I have been Googling Smith and epilepsy in hopes of an interview that addresses any research or personal connection but came up empty-handed.

        Interesting about Islands — I had it on my list but then put it aside because I couldn’t handle another epilepsy story that would annoy me with the particulars.

        And agreed! It’s the small details that can matter in such large ways. I know for many readers this won’t even register (and I know there are many books with similar issues that I miss because I don’t have the contextual knowledge), but I also know that I rely on the expertise of others when I assess books at this level. One can just hope that someone has the knowledge, and that a coherent conversation can cut through the emotional baggage to talk about it throughtfully.

        • Like 100SM, Islands does some things very right, but then misses the mark on several details (no discussion of what treatment methods were explored before they travel to get a new experimental treatment, the MC quit gymnastics because of her seizures but took on surfing, etc.) and then indulges in the magical disability trope in a way that rubbed our reviewer entirely the wrong way.

          Regarding Smith’s brother, he mentioned it to us on Twitter a while ago: https://twitter.com/marburyjack/status/474265866477907968

          And yes, it’s very difficult with issues like this because so many people don’t realize it. I’ve seen Rain Reign praised all over for its portrayal of autism, and it seems to be a frontrunner for multiple awards, but the one autistic reader I’ve heard of has huge issues with it.

          • Joy Piedmont says:

            I think you’re both getting at something that I’ve struggled to articulate. Last year, I couldn’t get behind Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass because the premise of the book hinged on an inaccurate depiction of the NYC school system. With other novels (titles of which aren’t coming to mind at the moment), I have looked closely at the portrayal of adoption and don’t always find accurate or positive depictions. All of this is to say that this whole issue is making me wonder, where’s the line for accuracy? I know this has come up multiple times here on the blog, but I keep returning to it, because I personally struggle with this as a reader. Part of the reason I never got fully behind Pointe is because of the ballet in the novel. As a committee, do you have to collectively come up with a rubric for accuracy? Because my accuracy “deal breakers” might be very different from someone else’s. Just food for thought.

  3. It’s interesting about the accuracy deal-breakers, Joy – in my experience on Printz and other selection committees, a mystical sort of consensus seems to form among the committee about which inaccuracies are deal-breakers and which ones are small enough or hazy enough to slide. And of course when it comes to awards, that sliding scale is different than if the book is good enough for a collection or recommendable.
    I especially like how you used the word “hinged” about your issues with Yaqui Delgado… that often seems to be the rubric by which accuracy deal-breakers can be measured. Just how important is the inaccuracy to the book? And how is the writing overall affected by that sloppiness?

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      TK, you ask a great question — “Just how important is the inaccuracy to the book? And how is the writing overall affected by that sloppiness?” Where I struggle is when it’s critical to my reading, as in this book — I can’t buy the parents because the treatment piece is so inexplicably absent and swimming is so present and thus all the characters and plot points start slipping down a mudslide.

      In this case (having now finished it), though, I think the relatively small inaccuracy turns out to be a breaking point if you have the knowledge to spot the issue, because swimming turns out to be pretty critical in any reading of this text. So if you, like me, find it unlikely that Finn would have been able to become such a strong swimmer, because any neurologist I know would say an epileptic with uncontrolled seizures shouldn’t swim without someone vigilantly keeping watch, then the entire climax of his story is ruined by the voice in your head pointing out that it all makes no sense.

      (And yes, maybe his awesome parents just kept watch all the time, but it doesn’t seem likely and it’s not mentioned. And I think it would be given Finn’s complex relationship with his seizures.)

      (Unless he really is an incomer and then all bets are off.)

      And all of that is without even getting into the manic pixie-ness of Julia or the way Cade is a poster of glorious boyhood and essentially ALSO a manic pixie.

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