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.