Later: I’m now finished reading Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War, which I should have read as a young adult, and am glad now to have rectified that oversight.
Cormier was one of the avant garde in the young-adult fiction arena. He wrote complex, dark tales that featured young-adult protagonists. These books appealed to adults, but also to teens in search of more gritty fare than the boy adventures and girl romances that were the norm for the era. Reading Cormier again (here are my reviews of I Am the Cheese and All Fall Down), I’m reminded of how thin many modern YA books feel to me. The Chocolate War is short but dense, with complex characters and emotional shadings. The Newbery-Award winning When You Reach Me was very good, but didn’t mine nearly the depth that this YA classic did, in my opinion.
Jerry Renault is a freshman at a private Catholic day school in New England. He hopes to make the football team, and is struggling emotionally in the wake of his mother’s death from cancer. Archie Costello is the psychologically savvy leader of an underground group called The Vigils. Archie creates and assigns tasks to new recruits, and coordinates the actions of members as he likes. Brother Leon is the interim head of the school who buys 20,000 boxes of cut-rate chocolate for the school fund raiser and uses various means and methods to make sure it all sells. Leon and Archie are frightening characters; they’re smart and powerful. So when skinny little Renault protests, it’s clear bad things will happen. And they do, though not without the characters learning a great deal of unpleasant truth about one another.
Cormier skillfully creates and deftly characterizes an impressively large cast. The opening sentence sets the tone, and the author doesn’t flinch from it:
They murdered him.
He also places great trust and power in the reader. Not all questions are answered in the end, and while many conflicts come to a climax, few end neatly. This book brought to mind any number of other classics on the culture of secondary school, peer pressure, and the violence of crowds, not least of which was its homage to the myth of the death of Jesus. Powerful, sobering, provocative, The Chocolate War deeply impressed me.
What are you reading? Share your books and reviews in the comments.I’m not sure spring is the best time for this project–winter would probably be better for more indoor, inner-focus time. But I’ll plug away. I figured this would be an attempt, not a done deal.