Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

Robert Cormier’s 1974 Young Adult novel The Chocolate War, has become a classic story of corruption and cruelty.  The New York Times named it an outstanding book of the year, as did the American Library Association and School Library Journal.  I occasionally like to dip into the world of YA literature, and this novel is a perfect reason to do so.

According to his website, Robert Cormier was born and has always lived in Leominster, Massachusetts. He grew up there, went to school there, courted and married there, and raised four children in the house where he and his wife, Connie, still live. "I never intend to live anywhere else," he says.  Cormier was a newspaper reporter and columnist for 30 years.  He began writing, "in the seventh grade.”

Cormier sets The Chocolate War in Trinity, a private academy for boys.  Jerry Renault wants to play football, and he has a poster in his locker, which reads, “Do I dare disturb the universe?”  Archie holds an important office in a secret society known as the Vigil.  Everyone knows about the Vigil and their mostly harmless pranks, but no one talks about it – including the Brothers who run the school.  An overly ambitious brother, Sebastian, seizes control of the school, when the headmaster is sick.  He launches a grand plan to raise money by selling chocolate bars.

In one passage, Cormier describes one of the classrooms.  “Brother Leon was getting ready to put on his show.  Jerry knew the symptoms – all the guys knew them.  Most of them were freshmen and had been in Leon’s class only a month or so but the teacher’s pattern had already emerged.  First, Leon gave them a reading assignment.  Then he’d pace up and down, up and down, restless sighing, wandering through the aisles, the blackboard pointer poised in his hand, the pointer he used either like a conductor’s baton or a musketeer’s sword.  He’d use the tip to push around a book on a desk or to flick a kid’s necktie, scratching gently down some guy’s back, poking the pointer as if he were a rubbish collector picking his way through the debris of the classroom.  One day, the pointer had rested on Jerry’s head for a moment, and then passed on.  Unaccountably, Jerry had shivered, as if he had just escaped some terrible fate” (38-39).  Do we professors really fall into those predictable routines?

That scene is all too familiar to me.  I can still see the rubber-tipped pointer as it smudged the chalk, or came crashing down on the hand of an unwary student whose mind wandered.

The pranks were elaborate, sometimes funny, and usually required late night raids on the school.  In one, a timid student, fearful of The Vigil, was ordered to loosen the screws in every desk and chair in one classroom.  The student worked diligently, but after four hours, he had barely finished a quarter of the seats.  Archie and his gang arrive to help finish the job. 

I thoroughly enjoyed The Chocolate War, but I see from the list of “Also by Robert Cormier” that he has a sequel, Beyond the Chocolate War.  I think I need to hunt that one down.  5 stars

--Chiron, 6/7/14

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