by Bethany Biesinger
Strangely, a book of last words is what gave me the freedom to find my first words. I had a vocabulary, but something had stoppered my words and was keeping them locked inside. I never realized that the exit for my words would lie in a young adult novel, let alone in the dialogue of a character named Pudge. John Green’s Looking for Alaska focuses on the labyrinth that we’re all trying to escape from and how it often isn’t escapable and contains nothing but wrong turns. For me though, Pudge and his experiences with Alaska Young helped me to find the next right turn and to let my words of pain escape. I won’t give a summary of Looking for Alaska. The title says it all. You have to find Alaska for yourself and see where she takes you in the labyrinth. I will however share where Looking For Alaska took me.
Life isn’t always wrong turns, but sometimes it feels like the wrong turns start to pile up until you feel as though you couldn’t possibly find your way out of the labyrinth. As an undergraduate, I had found a considerable number of right turns, but the wrong turns were overtaking me. The loss of a sister years before I was born continued to haunt me. What was she like? Would she have loved me as much as I had been taught to love her? Suddenly, a college friend was taken forcefully from this life and left an entire college community questioning, “Why?” My great-aunt, virtually a second grandmother to me, passed away in her sleep without any warning. She left me questioning why I hadn’t gotten to say goodbye. Finally, the worst wrong turn occurred and yet it was the turn that I knew was coming. After seven years spent trying to grant every whim of my ailing maternal grandmother, she was finally removed from her pain and taken into the Lord’s arms. Her passing left me wondering if she really had gone somewhere better. I couldn’t actually voice any of these questions though. The words were stuck and someone or something needed to let them out.
During the two years during which all of these wrong turns occurred, I felt myself drawn back to Pudge’s words of wisdom each time that I needed a compass. “I know so many last words. But I will never know hers.” I will never know my sister’s, aunt’s, friend’s, or grandmother’s last words, but my memories of them and love for them should give me plenty of background for what they would want to say to me. “When you stopped wishing things wouldn’t fall apart, you’d stop suffering when they did.” I needed to quit imagining what terrible thing could happen next. Like Pudge, my life wasn’t over, even though it felt like it. My suffering would not stop until I began to realize just how joyful life was. “We need never be hopeless, because we can never be irreparably broken. We think we are invincible because we are.” Hadn’t I made it through plenty? What was stopping me from entering a new adventure until I could be reunited with those I had lost? I had triumphed before and I could triumph again. And finally, in the words of the poet Rabelais, “I go to seek a Great Perhaps.” I needed to remember the wrong turns, but I still needed to find right turns in the labyrinth. New adventures were awaiting me and I needed to step away from my sorrow so that I could find these new paths.
The novel freed my voice and helped me to realize all of the words that couldn’t escape from me. Looking for Alaska allowed me to voice the question “How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?” The answer though is that I won’t and I shouldn’t until it’s time. I will face wrong turns, but for every wrong turn there is a right turn. Like Pudge, I just have to be ready for the Great Perhaps and take a chance on the right turn.
Bethany Biesinger is a graduate student in the University of Pittsburgh’s Learning Research and Development Center who is interested in Transatlantic Studies and literature.