Saturday, October 6, 2012

Teen/YA Review: The Chocolate War

I wanted to read a YA novel for Banned Book Week, so I perused the list of 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books in the 90’s and chose The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier.  I’ve heard of this book many times over the years (it was published in 1974) but never read it before so I grabbed one of the many copies off my local library’s shelves.  It is a violent but compelling novel about cruelty and conformity.

Jerry is a freshman at Trinity, a Catholic all-boys high school.  He is still struggling to deal with his mother’s recent death and lives a lonely existence, going to a new school without any friends and rarely seeing his taciturn father who works odd hours as a pharmacist.  The one bright spot in Jerry’s world is football.  In the opening scene of the novel, he is trying out as quarterback for the team, being brutally tackled again and again while the harsh coach yells at him. Yes, this is a highlight of Jerry’s life.

Though outwardly it would seem that the Brothers who teach the classes run Trinity, the truth is that a secret student group called the Vigils are controlling things behind the scenes.  Archie is the Vigils’ Assigner, and each week he chooses innocent students and assigns them various humiliations and pranks.  No one would ever think of defying Archie or the Vigils; the entire student body lives in fear of them, as does much of the teaching staff.

And that’s how things go at Trinity, the ways things have always gone at Trinity, until one day when something snaps in Jerry, and he defies both the cruel school head and the Vigils.  There’s a poster in Jerry’s locker that says, “Do I dare disturb the universe?” and that’s exactly what he does when he quietly but firmly refuses to go along with the status quo.

It’s easy to see why this book has been banned.  From the opening scene at football practice through several vicious fight scenes, violence is a central theme in the book, and it is quite graphic.  There are also several sexual references, though nothing explicit there, but book banners generally don’t like books that even mention masturbation.

All in all, Cormier’s famous YA novel presents a pretty dim view of mankind.  And I do mean mankind, not humankind, as the book is populated entirely by male characters; the only female characters are minor ones barely mentioned and only present as objects of the boys’ desire.  It is a very “Lord of the Flies” sort of situation, with most of the main characters, including the head teacher, acting with intense cruelty and completely lacking compassion.  True, there are some good guys here, including Jerry’s only friend, Goober, but the good guys are completely manipulated and controlled by the bad guys.  It's a dark view of human nature, though I don’t think the author means to say that all men are cruel but that a few bad apples have turned Trinity into an evil place.  All in all, though the novel was too violent for my taste, there is no doubt that it is a compelling and well-written story, and I can see that it would make for some excellent discussions about human nature in a high school English class.

191 pages, Bantam Doubleday Dell



Sheila (Bookjourney) said...

Hi Sue, I read it this week too. I never quite understand why masturbation has to be included in any book - but yeah, there it was in this one.

I enjoyed the basic storyline of the book (take out a bit of the above mentioned as well as things that you mentioned) and I would have loved it. The book does have a great story.

Thanks again for being a part of banned book week!

Sue Jackson said...

I guess if you want to write a realistic novel about adolescent boys, that has to be a part of it, Sheila! lol

I will have to drop by to read your review - very busy week!


Unknown said...

Ha! I wouldn't have thought about the Lord of the Flies similarities, but there are some! (And not just in the all-male cast, either...)

I just listened to the forward of Lord of the Flies (written and read by William Golding) and he said that he chose all boys rather than all girls because he felt that a group of all boys were more representative of the characteristics he was trying to portray about society. (Or, rather, that they would act more like an adult society in this situation? I admit I didn't quite understand his point.) He didn't want a mix of boys and girls, because then the book would be about sex. :)

Sue Jackson said...

Very interesting, Rachel, to hear Golding's perspective. I wonder whether both authors were trying to say that mankind is inherently violent and cruel? I just can't accept that hypothesis - too much of a sunny optimist in me!


Unknown said...

I don't really like that dark view of humanity, either. Humanity CAN be dark, of course, but I don't think that we are, by nature, dark.

Ms. Yingling said...

I feel like I should go back and read this one, but since an I Am The Cheese recommendation made my best friend never trust her school librarian again, I'm a little leery of Cormier!