Jennifer Niven: How Indiana Became a Very Bright Place

Jennifer Niven: How Indiana Became a Very Bright Place

I needed an organic way to bring these two together off that bell tower ledge, especially because I knew the withdrawn Violet would want nothing to do with the unpredictable, volatile Finch. So I gave them a school assignment: to wander their home state of Indiana. When the teacher announces that they’ll be doing this in pairs, Finch ambushes Violet into being his partner.

Now, I grew up in Indiana, where — as far as I was concerned — nothing interesting ever happened. My town was comprised of many, many cornfields and not much else. When my parents moved us there my fourth grade year, I believed it was a torture akin to, say, moving to Mars, and at first sight, I thought Indiana was the ugliest place I had ever seen. “Just remember,” my mother told me, “what is ugly to you is beautiful to some people.” As we crossed the state line from Ohio into Indiana, I looked out the window at cornfield after cornfield. At one point, there was an actual tractor driving down the road. A tractor! And I thought how wrong my mother was. I couldn’t imagine anyone thinking Indiana was beautiful.

Like Violet, I grew up counting the days till high school graduation, which signified my escape from the Midwest.

In All the Bright Places, Finch takes immediate charge of the Wander Indiana geography project. It’s his idea that he and Violet see “the grand, the small, the bizarre, the poetic, the beautiful, the ugly, the surprising. But absolutely, unconditionally, resolutely nothing ordinary.” It’s also his idea that they leave something behind, a kind of offering.

While I was plotting the book, I made a list of unusual places—some I’d been to when I was living there, others I discovered in my research. The stranger the places were, the better. I have a giant gas station map of Indiana, which I pinned to my wall, and on this I mapped out all the possible sites Finch and Violet could visit. Only one spot is made up—the Bookmobile Park. All the others are real.

The only one I knew I would include was Hoosier Hill, the highest spot in Indiana. This is located only a few miles from the town where I grew up, and it’s pretty legendary. It’s 1,257 feet above sea level and is basically just this rock in the ground. When I was Violet’s age, I laughed about it—my roots are, after all, in the North Carolina mountains— but something happened when I started writing the scene between Finch and Violet at Hoosier Hill. I began seeing things in a new way.

As they stand atop the high point, Violet looks out at the dirt and the corn and that’s all she sees. But Finch sees beyond those things. He sees Violet standing next to him and feels her hand in his. He sees hope and promise. Someone who could become a friend, maybe more. Someone who isn’t telling him he’s worthless. Someone who makes him feel as if he might actually matter after all. Standing next to her, Hoosier Hill feels as high as Everest, and Finch is on top of the world.

With each place they wander—whether it’s the local Purina Tower, the Blue Hole, or the Before I Die art installation—Violet gradually begins to see Indiana through the eyes of Finch. She recognizes there’s wonder in the little things, the little moments, the quiet, unassuming places. And she recognizes there’s wonder in him, this person she thought she knew but didn’t. Until now.

So Finch not only shows Violet that Indiana can be beautiful and full of bright places, he showed me this as well. He also shows Violet that people can be bright places too, especially once you give them a chance and get to know them.

Maybe my favorite location that Finch and Violet visit is the Blue Flash backyard rollercoaster. John Ivers is a retired farmer who invented the coaster because he loved the rush of going fast and “impending, weightless doom,” a line I quote in the book. His wife, Sharon, told me that “being a bright place has been for us touching the hearts of others and reminding them that in this time of hard things it is important to take time and have some fun.”

This is exactly what Finch and Violet did on their journey, and what Finch taught Violet as she learns to live again. I’ll always be grateful to Finch for reminding me that sometimes we need to look deeper at a place and at the people around us in order to truly see them.

You can find more about All the Bright Places here and don’t forget to check out the other Zoella Book Club books here.

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