Thursday, February 7, 2013

Book Review: The Chocolate War

The Chocolate War
By: Robert Cormier
Publication Date: 1974
Page Count: 263
Source: Purchased by Reviewer
Genre: Fiction
Read the First Chapter

"They murdered him." This punch-you-in-the-gut, simple, yet powerful sentence opens one of my favorite books of all time, The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier. 

 I'll get to a review of the book itself in a moment, but the historical significance of this book to the literary world deserves a mention, especially with the influx of young adult literature over the past ten years. When The Chocolate War was published in 1974, young adult as a genre didn't exist. Adults wrote books for and about other adults, assuming teenagers would enjoy them as well. The Chocolate War broke that mold, set in a high school with a single, completely corrupt and despicable, adult as a main character. Authors from Robert Newton Peck to Stephenie Meyer owe their success, in part, to Cormier who is often referred to as the father of young adult literature. Now, on to the book… 

Jerry Renault is a scrawny freshman trying out for Trinity's legendary football team, desperately trying to find his place at the all-male, private high school. So when Archie Costello, the leader of an underground school gang called The Vigils, assigns Jerry a task, he can’t rightly refuse. Jerry’s “assignment” puts him at odds with the acting headmaster, the power-hungry Brother Leon, and eventually with the rest of the school. And as the novel progresses, we realize that Jerry’s tenacity isn’t limited to the football field when he chooses to take a stand, though he’s not entirely sure what he’s standing against, or for. 

 From its opening sentence, The Chocolate War grabs your attention in a vice and doesn't let go. Cormier’s writing style is engaging and varied, and contrary to the succinct first sentence, he is a master of descriptive language. His use of biblical allusions (Jerry is a Christ figure if ever there was one) and lines like this one, when Jerry gets up after a particularly bad hit: “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.” give the English teacher in me chills. 

 The characters in The Chocolate War are complex (I love Brother Leon, the megalomaniac headmaster) and you’re never really sure who’s good and who’s bad, just like life. The plot isn’t traditional and the ending is completely unsatisfying, but in the best way possible, like a movie that you absolutely must talk to someone about as soon as it’s over. It isn’t difficult to see why this novel, which has come in at #3 and #4 on the American Library Association’s list of most challenged books for the past two decades, still appeals to my 10th grade students nearly 40 years after it’s original publication date. 

 Final Word: 
Even if you read this when you were younger, read it again. It’s just that good.



Jerry Renault ponders the question on the poster in his locker: Do I dare disturb the universe? Refusing to sell chocolates in the annual Trinity school fund-raiser may not seem like a radical thing to do. But when Jerry challenges a secret school society called The Vigils, his defiant act turns into an all-out war. Now the only question is: Who will survive? First published in 1974, Robert Cormier's groundbreaking novel, an unflinching portrait of corruption and cruelty, has become a modern classic.


2 comments:

  1. Excellent thoughts. It's been years since I have read this, and you made me want to read it again.

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  2. Annette, You absolutely should! :) I read it in middle school and reread it a few years ago to use with my 10th graders, mainly because it was one of the only books I'd read on the list I was given. And I could not be happier about my choice. It is a *totally* different book reading it as an adult versus reading it as a teen. The ending makes more sense, even though it is still shocking and unsatisfying.

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