(Banned) Book Talk: *The Chocolate War*, by Robert Cormier

THE CHOCOLATE WAR, via LibraryThing/Amazon.com

Robert Cormier
Laurel Leaf (1986), Mass Market Paperback (ISBN 0440944597 / 9780440944591)
YA fiction, 272 pages
Source: personal copy
Reason for reading: re-read for Banned Books Week 2012

Opening lines: “They murdered him.

“As he turned to take the ball, a dam burst against the side of his head and a hand grenade shattered his stomach. Engulfed by nausea, he pitched toward the grass. His mouth encountered gravel, and he spat frantically, afraid that some of his teeth had been knocked out. Rising to his feet, he saw the field through drifting gauze but held on until everything settled into place, like a lens focusing, making the world sharp again, with edges.

“The second play called for a pass. Fading back, he picked up a decent block and cocked his arm, searching for a receiver – maybe the tall kid they called The Goober. Suddenly, he was caught from behind and whirled violently, a toy boat caught in a whirlpool. Landing on his knees, hugging the ball, he urged himself to ignore the pain that gripped his groin, knowing that it was important to betray no sign of distress, remembering The Goober’s advice, ‘Coach is testing you, testing, and he’s looking for guts.’”

Book description, from the publisher’s website:
Stunned by his mother’s recent death and appalled by the way his father sleepwalks through life, Jerry Renault, a New England high school student, ponders the poster in his locker-Do I dare disturb the universe? 

Part of his universe is Archie Costello, leader of a secret school societ-the Virgils-and master of intimidation. Archie himself is intimidated by a cool, ambitious teacher into having the Virgils spearhead the annual fund-raising event-a chocolate sale. When Jerry refuses to be bullied into selling chocolates, he becomes a hero, but his defiance is a threat to Archie, the Virgils, and the school. In the inevitable showdown, Archie’s skill at intimidation turns Jerry from hero to outcast, to victim, leaving him alone and terribly vulnerable.

Comments: The Chocolate War was originally published in 1974, which means it was still a relatively new book when I first read it–and I can’t remember exactly when that was, but it was either in middle or high school, and I started high school in 1978. I’ve read it more than once, but definitely not since I finished high school in 1982. The fact that it seems to be a perennial on the banned-and-challenged-books lists has made me curious to revisit it for a while–I’m always curious to see if I understand why books I had no idea might be controversial when I originally read them have come under fire in the years since–and it’s one of two books I’m re-reading for this year’s 30th anniversary of Banned Books Week.

Secret societies seem to be a staple of fiction set in private schools. They may truly be secret to all but a few, or they may simply be unacknowledged publicly–but either way, they retain an air of mystery that gives them power, which they use to varying degrees from benevolence to criminality. The Vigils are the secret society at Trinity High School, and while most of their activities might be considered pranks, their influence is strong enough that acting headmaster Brother Leon wants to be sure he has their support behind the annual school chocolate sale. The students need to sell twice as much candy as they did the year before, and although participation is officially voluntary, every student has always made at least an effort to sell his quota…until freshman Jerry Renault comes along. Jerry’s outright refusal to sell for the first two weeks of the sale starts to win him admiration from his fellow students–until it becomes defiance of the Vigils and their mastermind, Archie Costello, which cannot be allowed to stand.

My recollection was that The Chocolate War was a pretty dark novel, and it certainly is, but its dystopian world is that of the contemporary high school–and at almost forty years old, it barely feels dated at all. In fact, its bullying theme may be, sadly, even more timely now. Cormier’s characterizations aren’t terribly complex, but his adolescent boys behave believably. The novel’s plotting is tight and the tension rarely lets up. There’s a good deal of violence here, both psychological and physical.

I’d forgotten some of the details of The Chocolate War since my last long-ago reading, but I did remember the basics of the story–and when I reached the ending, I remembered that I hadn’t been pleased with it. I’m still not, but as an adult reader I find it more satisfying than I once did. The Chocolate War is chilling, unsettling, and very true to life, and I can see many reasons why it’s frequently challenged, It’s also a defining work of young-adult fiction that needs to be read and discussed for many years to come.

The Banned Books Week party at Book Journey!

It’s “Chocolate War Day” for Sheila’s “Jump on the Banned Wagon” Banned Books Week party at Book Journey-she’s discussing the audiobook version today, and will be giving away chocolate to one lucky person who comments on either of our posts about the book!

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