100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith is the story of Finn Easton, a sixteen-year-old boy, attempting to find himself despite unusual circumstances. Finn sees the world through distance rather than time, which provides readers an interesting perspective. He views each second as twenty miles; the distance Earth travels in that amount of time. As Finn negotiates his identity, he does so alongside his best friend, Cade Hernandez, and the love of his young life, Julia Bishop. Finn and Cade form an unlikely duo and their hilarious, honest dialogue embodies everything that teenage boys are. It’s a heartwarming story of friendship and love, but Smith also offers deeper insight into the complexity that is adolescence, specifically the shift in how younger generations are coming to terms with the surrounding world.
Finn’s emphasis on distance rather than time gives his character an engaging philosophical side. Although the majority of us don’t assess every event of our lives in terms of distance, his perspective offers a catalyst to consider more intriguing questions of existence. Perhaps the most thought provoking being Finn’s view of the universe as one giant knackery – constantly recycling the atoms and energy it possesses. He suggests, “When you think about it, the universe is nothing but this vast knackery of churning black holes and exploding stars, constantly freeing atoms that collect together and become something else, and something else again.” In one of my favorite non-fiction books, A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson discusses this concept in greater detail.
“Every atom you possess has almost certainly passed through several stars and been part of millions of organisms on its way to becoming you. We are each so atomically numerous and so vigorously recycled at death that a significant number of our atoms – up to a billion for each of us, it has been suggested – probably once belonged to Shakespeare. A billion more each came from Buddha and Genghis Khan and Beethoven, and any other historical figure you care to name. (The personages have to be historical, apparently, as it takes the atoms some decades to become thoroughly redistributed…)”
That’s one of those mind-blowing facts that you have to read through a couple times in order to fully grasp. Finn speaks to our individual impermanence but there’s something romantic about his understanding of the way we’re all interconnected, and in some ways infinite.
After his first encounter with Julia, Finn ponders this exact idea, “I imagined that parts of my insides and parts of her insides may have come from the same exploding star, billions years ago. Maybe my right hand and her left hand both came from the same supernova.” It’s an incredibly powerful way to convey his infatuation and really draws us in to both his character and his perception of her. It’s also an idea that invites us to explore beyond the pages of the book – one of the main reasons I enjoyed this novel. Taking a moment to consider that we are each composed of the same matter as stars is nothing short of fascinating.
Science is beautiful, not terrifying. Finn’s character offers hope and in many ways reflects a shift in the way that younger minds are coming to understand the surrounding world. Greater attention is being given to the significance of science and its importance to our identities. As Smith hints at in the novel, younger generations are more commonly developing our belief systems around an objective reality and negotiating complex concepts such as love, heartbreak, identity, and death, through this lens. This helps provide a more accurate understanding of the universe, and allows us to better grasp our place in it, as well as what meaning can be derived.
Finn’s view of the universe provides the framework for much of the book, but it isn’t the only insight he offers. Early on we learn that Finn is epileptic due to an unfortunate accident when he was a child. His epilepsy is a source of constant frustration and understandably so. At sixteen, he wants to be self-sufficient but is forced to continue his reliance on others. Finn also feels trapped by his parents, specifically with regard to a popular science fiction novel written by his Dad, in which the main character bears a striking resemblance to Finn. As a result, Finn feels his every move is predetermined and he can’t escape the pages he’s been written into.
The scenario might be different, but the desire to be independent and escape the confines of an idea that others have constructed of us is something that almost every person, teenager or not, can relate to. As we each attempt to grow into the person we want to be, there exists a gap that needs to be bridged. In order for us to write our own story and escape the pages others have written for us, that gap must first be acknowledged.
In a later passage where Finn is saying goodbye to Julia after a brief visit, he offers a great line, “The good-bye I said to Julia was not nearly as devastating as the first time I’d said it, because I knew the miles between us had been rendered inconsequential.” On a surface level, Finn means the actual physical distance between them. But this same concept can be applied to the emotional distance between two people or the internal distance that stands between who you are and your own goals/dreams.
It is often said that the greatest distance in the world is between the head and the heart. However, once you’ve found the courage and spent the time to overcome this, in many ways you have rendered the miles ‘inconsequential,’ as Finn suggests, and it is no longer such a burden. The challenge is in initially bridging this great divide.
Over the course of the novel, Finn’s philosophies and quirks come together to develop him into an intriguing, endearing character. Not only is 100 Sideways Miles an enjoyable coming of age story, but it also invites us to dig deeper and consider larger concepts beyond the book. Finn’s character reminds us of what it’s like growing up and how challenging that period of life can be. His perspective and philosophies also represent a shift in the way younger generations are coming to terms with more challenging concepts.
At its core, it’s a story of finding and reinventing oneself amidst various images that the world has constructed and projected upon us. Whether in the literal sense or figurative, with our identities in a state of constant fluctuation, life and the universe prove to be one giant knackery indeed.