Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War is a much-banned, malevolent gem

Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War is a much-banned, malevolent gem

With series like the Harry Potter, Twilight, and Hunger Games books becoming international mega-bestsellers, young-adult fiction is now a thriving genre that draws readers of all ages. YA Why? is a periodic book-review column that looks at YA releases from the perspective of what they do or don’t do with familiar YA tropes, whether they appeal to a broad audience or strictly to the younger set, and why we might want to read them. 

Book: Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War, published March 12, 1974

Plot: Behind the scenes at an exclusive prep academy called Trinity, a secret society called The Vigils dominates the students through psychological warfare and systematic victimization. Sociopathic junior Archie Costello, The Vigils’ “assigner,” plans venomous pranks, and The Vigils force students—particularly the most vulnerable, intimidated, approval-seeking ones—to carry them out. Freshman Jerry Renault, emotionally bruised after his mother’s death, is handed a typical assignment, to spend two weeks publicly defying Trinity’s traditions by refusing to take part in the school’s annual chocolate sale. Dangerously unpredictable acting headmaster Brother Leon is livid; he illicitly overextended Trinity’s finances to buy twice as many chocolates as the school sold in past years, and he needs the school’s unstinting cooperation to sell the candy and protect his job. But after the two-week prank ends, Jerry still refuses to sell the chocolates, in spite of increasing pressure from his frightened peers, The Vigils, and Brother Leon. The standoff quickly turns into a war between the entire school and one teenager who isn’t even sure why he’s refusing to go along with the crowd.

Series status? Written as a stand-alone novel, though Cormier wrote a sequel, Beyond The Chocolate War, in 1985. While The Chocolate War is considered an all-time classic, the sequel is much less studied and much less acclaimed, but it is worth reading, particularly given how it pays off some of the first book’s minor side stories.

YA cliché? Cormier was one of the founding fathers of modern young-adult literature. The cynicism of his books for and about teenagers—particularly I Am The Cheese, After The First Death, The Bumblebee Flies Anyway, and Fade, in addition to the Chocolate War books—was unparalleled in his time; to the degree that there are young-adult clichés in this book, it’s because of writers imitating him after the fact. Given that the book was written in the ’70s, it has none of today’s most familiar YA signifiers, like love triangles and future dystopias. But it does deal with a familiar topic for YA fiction from any era: the power of peer pressure, the strength it takes to surmount it, and the power of an individual making personal decisions instead of acquiescing to the status quo and the will of the pack. What distinguishes The Chocolate War, though, is the startling implication that there’s no glory or triumph in individuality, that the in-group has nigh-unlimited power, and that anyone resisting them is just giving them an excuse to exercise their vindictiveness to its limit. It’s a bleak message in a bleak book, but it evades the usual “hero individual” cliché by a mile.

Bad sign: One of the book’s few missteps occurs early on, when Jerry Renault encounters a hippie teenager who repeatedly accuses him of being a “square boy” for keeping a schedule, going to school every day, and being “middle-aged at fourteen, fifteen, already caught in a routine. Wow.” Embarrassed, Jerry heads for his bus, and the hippie tells him “Go get your bus, square boy. Don’t miss the bus, boy. You’re missing a lot of things in the world, better not miss that bus.” Not only does the characterization of the hippie and his crowd date the book somewhat—which is unfortunate, since it’s otherwise admirably timeless—it’s clunky, particularly when Jerry starts resisting Trinity’s chocolate drive while vaguely recalling the hippie’s admonition that he’s missing out.

Good sign: Overall, though, The Chocolate War is a stunningly crafted book that builds amazing tension out of what sounds like a banal conflict. Cormier tightens the screws early by making it clear that this isn’t just a confrontation between cranky adolescents over candy: In an early chapter, he sets up Brother Leon as a manipulator with a sadistic streak to rival Archie Costello’s. There’s a riveting inevitability to the sequence where he pulls a straight-A student to the front of the classroom, strikes him in the face with a blackboard pointer and pretends it’s an accident, then builds a chain of illogic that makes the boy either a cheater or an arrogant blasphemer: “Are you perfect, Bailey? All those A’s—that implies perfection. Is that the answer, Bailey? Only God is perfect, Bailey. Do you compare yourself with God, Bailey?” As the other boys squirm in discomfort at Bailey’s ridiculously unjust public torture, Cormier establishes, in a microcosm, how Trinity works: Everyone is afraid to assist a victim, lest they become victims themselves. And when someone does finally, anonymously speak up from the back of the room—“Aw, let the kid alone”—Brother Leon promptly turns that minor rebellion into an object lesson for everyone else by reversing himself, comforting Bailey, and blaming everyone else for not helping him. In The Chocolate War, there are no right or safe choices against bullies, who find a way to turn every situation to their advantage.

Young-adult appropriate? The Chocolate War has been repeatedly challenged or banned in libraries and schools, largely for its violence and its several brief-but-frank masturbation scenes. Brutality and sex aside, though, it’s a book specifically designed with teenagers in mind, a book about what it’s like to be that age and confused about how to deal with peer pressure. Some adults have certainly said the ending—which directly answers Jerry’s ongoing, T.S. Eliot-derived question, “Do I dare disturb the universe?” with a resounding, “Hell no, it’s too dangerous”—is too cynical and defeatist for younger readers, but it remains a refreshingly bitter antidote to all the thousands of can-do, hero-makes-good stories out there.

Old-adult appropriate? Adults who had to read The Chocolate War in school or have never encountered it except by reputation as a standard middle-school study-object may be surprised at how well it reads later in life. It’s an impeccably crafted, poisonous little gem that builds tension in a variety of intelligent ways, and crafts characters quickly but with depth. Archie is a ball of sheer malevolence, but he secretly feels the self-pity of a character who doesn’t consider himself a villain. The chapters focusing on his right-hand stooge Obie and The Vigils’ head man, Carter, emphasize how tragedies happen not just because of cruel individuals, but because of the people who hate what they do, and abet them anyway out of weakness, apathy, boredom, a wish to be on the inside, or any number of other reasons. Brother Leon in particular adds to the discomfort with his collusion with The Vigils—The Lord Of The Flies covered similar ground by showing how vicious children might become with no civilizing influences or adult supervision, but The Chocolate War outdoes it by addressing how adult pressures and tacit approval might actually push boys further into savagery than they could go otherwise. Adult readers might feel less of a sense of honesty and truth about The Chocolate War’s sheer ugliness, but they’re more likely to appreciate its sheer technique, and how much terrifying mileage it gets out of the question “How far can this face-off possibly go?”

Could use less: Lingering on the characters’ lascivious but often distanced thoughts about girls, which generally focus in detail on bouncing breasts and rounded asses. Yes, all of the characters are teenage boys, who often aren’t thinking about much else. Yes, teenage boys masturbate. Yes, part of the point of the book is that violence in teenage boys can be a sublimation of and an outlet for sexual frustration. Even given all that, though, the wank fantasies can be wearying.

Could use more: Of the subsidiary characters Cormier touches on in passing. Several supporting characters are given a single chapter to themselves in order to build the story—to show the effect Jerry’s resistance is having on different corners of the school, to further show the extent of Brother Leon’s manipulations and his corruption—but Cormier apparently can’t resist characterizing each of those boys in depth and detail, to the point where they’re each living out their own interesting stories. Those sidebars seem frustratingly unfinished when he never returns to them. Beyond The Chocolate War does provide payoff for several of them, but those threads might have been better served via inclusion in the first book.

For fans of: Unhappy endings.

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