14 September 2009

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

I've heard good things about The Chocolate War, so, when I saw it on the list of classic YA novels we could choose to read for "The Adolescent in American Lit," I decided to give it a try.

The story is that of Trinity High School, particularly a freshman named Jerry Renault. The school has a "gang" called The Vigils; these boys give "homework assignments" to younger boys as a form of psychological torture. Jerry's first assignment is to refuse to sell chocolates for the school fundraiser, lighting the short fuse of Brother Leon, the assistant headmaster. After ten days, when Jerry is allowed to start selling chocolates, he doesn't--inspired by a poster reading "Do I dare disturb the universe?" Jerry dares, and the rest of the book lays out the consequences of his split-second decision to challenge authority.

I'll begin by saying that this book is indeed intelligent. It is well-written with complex grammar and vocabulary. It gets quite violent at times, vividly so. The first chapter describes a football tryout, but it sounds more like a gang war. The violence escalates, but I don't want to ruin the novel.

Here's a quote that I rather liked from that first chapter: "His body seemed to telescope into itself but all the parts didn't fit, and he was stunned by the knowledge that pain isn't just one thing--it is cunning and various, sharp here and sickening there, burning here and crawling there"(2). Even here, on the second page, it's clear that Cormier has talent and knowledge; I think that this was the "problem novel" before it was a meaningless term. I think that want-to-be authors saw this compelling story and these multidimensional characters and thought, 'Hey, I could do that,' not considering the parts of the novel that take it from good to great.

Personally, I wasn't a huge fan of the writing style or the ending, but I appreciate the novel for what it is--a quality piece of literature for students.