Friday, November 2, 2012

Friday Flashback: The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

Books don't have to be new to be deserving of a review! On Fridays I flashback to some of my favorite books of all-time.

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

If you've ever tried writing a one-sentence summary of The Chocolate War, then you know that it can be a bit of a challenge to describe this book without making it sound foolish.  Just the fact that the plot centers around the bullying a classmate because he doesn't want to chocolate for the school's annual fundraiser makes it seem...childish? petty?  like a silly kids book?  And yet, it is anything but childish, petty or a silly kids book.  The Library of Congress summary reads as such: "A high school freshman discovers the devastating consequences of refusing to join in the school's annual fundraising drive and arousing the wrath of the school bullies."  That's a little better, but I'm still not convinced that this is the type of book that sounds like it should be in the top ten of the Top 100 Challenged Books for both of the last two decades (while The Chocolate War was published in 1974, ALA only started tracking in 1990) for it's violent and sexual content. So how about this one-sentence summary instead: 

What started as an initiation prank for a high school secret society escalates into a stand-off that pits one student against the students and administration and could wind up costing Jerry everything he has, including his life.

That's a little better, right?  I sure hope so, since it took me about an hour to come up with that.  But what if I had more than one sentence?  What would I add?

  • The point of view of the novel shifts from one chapter to next, gradually unveiling the depths of corruption at play, the motivations of each character and the lengths that certain individuals will go to in order to maintain power.  
  • The novel's central question revolved around a quote from T.S. Eliot that is posted in Jerry's locker: "Do I dare disturb the universe?" And if so, at what cost?
  • The novel was published in 1974 it is among the first novels written specifically for young adults.
  • It is often compared to works like Golding's Lord of the Flies and Knowles A Separate Peace, which also feature all-male casts of prep-school rivals.  What makes The Chocolate War stand out from these two other works (I think, at least) is the presence of a complicit adult who knowingly allows boys to wield power over one another for personal benefit.
If you haven't read it, you definitely should.  It's pretty much one of the founding members of the YA canon.  Realistic, palpable suspense and corruption all wrapped up in hormonal teenage boys?  How could you pass that up?

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  1. It would also be unpublishable these days for its absolutely unforgiving ending. (Robert Cormier had to argue for the ending even back in the '70 - his publisher wanted him to soften it.) IMO, The Chocolate War competes with the postscript of Brundibar (Tony Kushner/Maurice Sendak) for most honest portrayal of bullying in children's/YA lit.

    p.s. This was another class book! always glad to be one of your YA lit "dealers."

  2. p.s. There's virtually no sexual content (a couple of references to masturbation, as kind of befits a book about teen boys), and only one violent scene (which I think is more effective for being the only one, versus one of many). Again, IMO, the book is *really* challenged because of its realistic take on the psychology of bullying (and, as you mention, the fact that at least one adult knows about it, but does nothing).