On the Road: Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places

The ghost barn sat in a wide field, a single light bulb burning atop a lamppost, bathing the cracked wooden beams in a haunted, eerie glow. Try as we might, my friends and I were never able to find that place again. We spent dozens of summer nights driving around for hours at a time, putting miles behind us in a winding maze of guesswork until we were lost on unpaved streets, the residual light of suburbia blocked by the tall, overhanging trees, darkness closing in absolutely. It was a ridiculous quest. It was so much fun.

There is something distinctly midwestern—and distinctly adolescent—about getting into a car with your friends and just going. It is both reckless and undeniably reasonable, this desire to blindly throw your life into drive and see where the road will take you. It goes without saying that the months we spent searching, unable to find a creepy barn to which we began to attribute paranormal properties, were exciting and important but not because of the barn.

When Violet and Finch, the teenagers at the center of Jennifer Niven’s soon-to-be-adapted-to-film novel All the Bright Places, set out to visit a collection of Indiana’s most esoteric tourist destinations, the comfort they find in one another has little to do with the oddities of homemade roller coasters or the majesty of Indiana’s tallest hill. The road trip makes for a compelling metaphor because it pulls us out of the entrenched context of our lives which can so easily become suffocating, especially when we’re young and still learning to breathe on our own. But the real measure of the road trip comes when it ends and we’re forced once more to reintegrate into those potentially stifling routines.

And so the fundamental question of any adolescent road trip isn’t whether or not you’ll find the ghost barn or swim down into the deepest reaches of the lake, it’s whether or not you’ve found the strength to bring the spirit and freedom of the search back with you to be implemented into the patterns of daily life.

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