100 Sideways Miles

by Andrew Smith

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1013

Author: Andrew Smith (b. 1959)

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First published: 2014

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Coming-of-age

Time of plot: Present day

Locale: Burnt Mill Creek, California

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Principal characters

Finn Easton, a high school student who has epilepsy

Julia Bishop, his love interest

Cade Hernandez, his best friend

Mike Easton, his father

The Story

High school junior Finn Easton measures the passage of time based on the distance that the earth, and by extension everyone on it, travels through space, or about twenty miles per second. This unique perspective on life lends Finn a perspective that helps him deal with his unusual life. When he was seven years old, Finn and his mother were the victims of a freak accident: a dead horse fell out of the back of a truck traveling across a bridge and crushed him and his mother, who were on the banks of the creek below the bridge. The accident killed his mother and the resulting back injury Finn suffered left him with epilepsy. His father, who has become overprotective, has written an epileptic alien character, Finn, into his successful science-fiction novel The Lazarus Door. His father denies that the character is his son, but Finn sees things differently and feels trapped by his father's fictionalized version of himself.Courtesy of Simon & Schuster

The circumstances of his life make Finn feel out of step with the world around him, so he relies on Cade Hernandez, his quirky and often crude best friend, to ground him and provide his only social outlet. Finn's life begins to change significantly, however, when Julia Bishop transfers to his high school and befriends him and Cade. Julia is unfazed by the parts of Finn's life and character that he assumes to be strange or off-putting.

For a short time, Finn, Cade, and Julia form an unlikely trio, hanging out together and exploring what little there is to explore around the small town of Burnt Mill Creek, California. At first, Finn feels both nervous and unexpectedly liberated around Julia, in part because she sees him at his worst after a particularly severe epileptic seizure and does not seem to mind. Julia invites Finn to come to her house at midnight on his birthday, leading Finn to believe that she might be interested in having sex, but instead she surprises him with a shadow-puppet show that symbolically represents Finn's unique perspective on life, and ends with a message saying that she loves him. Finn is moved by this gift and relieved that he does not have to tell Julia that he is not actually ready for sex yet. Unfortunately, after only a few weeks, Julia tells Finn that she has to move back to Chicago, and Finn is devastated by the loss of his first love.

Feeling more trapped than ever, in large part due to his father and stepmother's overprotectiveness, Finn embarks on a road trip with Cade to visit a prospective college in Oklahoma. Finn's epilepsy prohibits him from driving, so he must depend on Cade, yet another frustration in his life. The pair's journey takes a dramatic turn when they witness a vehicle being swept into the rushing water of a flash flood. They heroically dive in and rescue the vehicle's occupants, but a mix-up occurs when the authorities believe Finn to be Cade and vice versa. Not wanting to interrupt their trip with a lot of red tape, Finn and Cade flee the small town and decide to take a long detour to visit Julia in Chicago, a decision that reassures Finn by proving that he and Julia do not have to lose contact just because they are separated by two thousand miles.

Critical Evaluation

100 Sideways Miles is a classic coming-of-age novel, complete with emotional, metaphorical, and literal journeys. Although Finn's life abounds with unusual circumstances—including the fact that his mother died and his epilepsy was caused by a horse falling on them from a bridge—many of Finn's experiences are typical for teenagers, such as the uncertainty and elation that come with falling in love for the first time. Similarly, Finn chafes at his parents' overprotectiveness as would any teenager, but in his case this feeling is personified by his epilepsy as well as the fact that people assume his father's novels are about Finn personally. Finn has always acted as though this does not particularly bother him, but his true feelings surface when he sarcastically tells his father to write another book about him so he knows who he is supposed to be in life.

One of the book's most successful elements is the characterization of Finn, Cade, and Julia, who each have a distinct way of looking at and navigating the world. Additionally, Finn and Cade provide an effective contrast to one another: their personalities are vastly different yet do not interfere with their long-term friendship. While Cade is occasionally an over-the-top character (such as when he torments his history teacher by continually referring to masturbation during class), his open brashness inspires Finn even when he is embarrassed by Cade's behavior. The focus on these three young characters, with the adult characters playing a much more peripheral role, mirrors the real-life experiences of high school students as they begin to question and form their own identities.

Critically well received, 100 Sideways Miles was included on the long list for the 2014 National Book Award for young people's literature. The book's larger-than-life elements, including the boys' heroic rescue during the flash flood, make the novel memorable without resorting to a traditional and unrealistic "happily ever after" ending for Finn and Julia. Overall, the story's mix of realism and whimsy results in a winning combination with wide appeal for a young-adult audience.

Further Reading

  • Huneven, Michelle. Review of 100 Sideways Miles, by Andrew Smith. The New York Times, 4 Nov. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2014/11/09/books/review/100-sideways-miles-by-andrew-smith.html. Accessed 28 Feb. 2017.
  • Review of 100 Sideways Miles, by Andrew Smith. Kirkus, 1 July 2014, www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/andrew-smith/100-sideways-miles/. Accessed 28 Feb. 2017.
  • Piedmont, Joy. Review of 100 Sideways Miles,by Andrew Smith. School Library Journal, 18 Jan. 2015, blogs.slj.com/printzblog/2015/01/18/100-sideways-miles/. Accessed 28 Feb. 2017.

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