on 20 July 2000
This is a great book, very dark, very serious. It takes some hard looks at social and moral issues about community, forced community, and forcing schoolchildren to pimp goods door-to-door to help pay for their education, in this case, chocolates. Set in a US Catholic all-boys parochial school, for anyone that didn't attend this kind of school, the background may seem surreal; trust me, it's as real as it gets. Brother Anthony made the hair stand up on the back of my neck in recognition.
P.s. don't waste your time on the Hollywood movie, they rewrote the ending to appeal to some mythical "American sensibility" which I as an American, find ludicrous and repellent. The rewritten version *completely* destroyed the message of the story.
on 9 August 2012
Every year, Trinity High School raises money by recruiting its students to sell chocolates. One year, Jerry Renault says `no'. At first, this is on instruction, the result of a unique kind of bullying instigated by a select clique known as The Vigils; but soon Jerry is making a stand of his own - although he is not quite sure why. Warped Vigil mastermind Archie is behind Jerry's initial refusal, but his power is challenged when Jerry refuses to stand down. Can Archie regain control of the situation; and if not, will Jerry have proven or achieved anything? A war that is much bigger, and much more explosive than a box of chocolates has begun...
The Chocolate War could easily have been a straightforward exercise examining the fears and humiliation of peer pressure, bullying and conformity with a side-order of positivity and the championing of self-esteem, self-belief, self-awareness (etc), but Cormier goes much further in this chillingly human story, full of challenging ideas. There is a bleakness in the inherent corruption of the school and the lost innocence, or contamination of those who encounter it for the first time. Awareness dawns that life is not always happily ever after, and standing up for something that matters will not change the world - although it may change your perspective or perception of it. This novel asks more questions than it answers.
Cormier has an uncanny way of getting under his characters' skin, in prose that is clear and accessible, without excess. A `simple' school story about a boy dealing with the loss of his mother to cancer becomes a complex question of good versus evil. The refusal to offer pat solutions makes this young adult novel stand out from the crowd.
on 22 January 2014
"Bleak", "violent" and "realistic" aren't words we normally associate with young adult fiction, which is why Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War, from 1974, is refreshing. Devastating yes, but also refreshing.
As a result of its harsh realism, coupled with frank depictions of violence and sexuality, it's been a frequent target for censors. (It's number three in the American Library Association's "Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books in 2000 - 2009″, behind Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's Alice series and, at number one, Harry Potter.)
Jerry Renault is a freshman at Trinity High, a private Catholic boys' school. His mother recently died of cancer and his father, a pharmacist, leads a mundane existence which depresses Jerry. Worse, Trinity High is secretly run by The Vigils, a student group whose power is maintained by Archie Costello, the Assigner. He assigns random students tasks which take the form of pranks, like removing all the screws in a classroom so its furniture collapses.
Brother Leon, Trinity's acting-headmaster, implicitly allows The Vigils' control, and even requests their help in the annual chocolate sale: each student must sell fifty boxes of chocolates, proceeds going to the school. But Jerry, for reasons he can't explain, refuses, creating a war between himself, Brother Leon and The Vigils.
The novel's themes are fascism and conformity. In one telling scene Brother Leon humiliates a student before a class, encourages them to join the abuse, then chides them for their pack mentality, comparing the class to Nazi Germany. His classroom theatrics aren't meant as a moral lesson, however. He's merely asserting his dominance, always doing the unexpected thing, so the students fearfully fall in line. Archie is the Goebbels to Leon's Führer, though maybe it's the other way around. Complex power dynamics are a strong part of The Chocolate War`s suspense.
A boxing-pro called Carter is The Vigils' president, but Archie as Assigner is its true wellspring of decision. He's smart and sadistic, always playing mental tricks on people, cowing much stronger kids into submission with his wits alone. The kids, especially The Vigils' secretary, Obie, often refer to him as "that bastard". Archie's assignments have earned him hate and grudging awe from his fellows, which he relishes.
The fascinating thing about Archie is that he doesn't really see himself as evil. He never personally lays a finger on anyone, and is even "kind" enough to share the burden of his assignments among several students. He does have one weakness, though: the black box. The box contains several white and one black marble. When Archie gives an assignment he must blindly choose a white marble, or face the assignment himself. This plot point creates a moment of almost painful suspense late in the story.
Jerry is a complex protagonist. He seems like an everyday kid; good at football, an average scholar, shy around girls, liked by Richard "The Goober" Goubert, a footballing peer. Yet he refuses to sell the chocolates. The sale is technically voluntary, of course, but one of the novel's underlying ideas is that adults will sometimes say one thing and mean another. The sale is described as "voluntary" only because the notion that a student won't sell never crossed anyone's mind, and something inside Jerry realises that. He sees his father's dull, work-driven existence and, when the sale's announced, finds himself saying... No.
This, of course, will not do in Brother Leon's world, and as Leon could cause trouble for them The Vigils take up the cause, especially when students start following Jerry's example and rebel against the school's accepted order. A recurring quote in the novel is Eliot's "do I dare disturb the universe?", from "The Love Song J. Alfred Prufrock". Does Jerry, in the end, dare disturb The Vigils' universe, and by extension Trinity's?
One of the things I admire most about The Chocolate War is its bravery. In an age where storytellers for young adults are afraid to include anything transgressive, whether it be strong language or even a story about boy wizards, Cormier's brute honesty is refreshing. He writes about masturbating, breasts and fights because, let's face it, that's what most teenage boys are thinking about. Like all the best young adult and children's fiction, The Chocolate War reveals the issues of reality through a kid's eyes.
Also, Cormier's prose is profoundly poetic (alliteration unintentional) at times. The ending, a perfect marriage of style and theme, almost made me cry. So yes, it's a sad novel. One which deals with grief, fascism, alienation and life's startling unfairness. But it's also suspenseful, as you keep turning pages in anticipation of The Vigils' next move, and deeply thought-provoking.
on 22 July 2003
The Chocolate War is a cruel but not entirely unrealistic study of school life at Trinity school for boys. Set in American, this is a chilling novel with similar themes for the Godfather (albeit on a smaller scale). Jerry has recently started at Trinity school and things are going well; he's made the football team and some friends. His problems start when the annual chocolate sale comes around; supposedly an optional activity, Jerry goes against the norm and refuses to sell his share of chocolates. This soon attracts the attention of other, less keen pupils, but also Brother Leon who is in charge of the sale. When Leon realises this one boy could make him fail the required target, he calls Archie Costello, the head of the dominating group known as the Vigils, to persuade Jerry to sell his chocolates.
I found this book very enjoyable, but also consistent with its themes of how power corrupts and non-conformism. Although a children's author, Robert Cormier's Chocolate War is recommended for all ages.