Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier

The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier. New York: Knopf, 1997. 272 pp. ISBN 0394828054

With a vague yet developing conviction that even he does not yet fully understand himself, Jerry Renault has decided that he will not sell chocolates in the school fund-raiser.  Archie Costello, however, is determined to make Jerry cave...

Realistic Fiction

(This verson is a reissue of the 1974 novel, with added author introduction.)  Jerry Renault, whose mother has just passed away, and whose father is somewhat distant due to having to work late hours, is starting his freshman year at the all boys' Trinity Catholic School. The school holds a chocolate sale fundraiser each year, and sinister acting Headmaster Brother Leon has just doubled the price of each box as well as the quota that each boy must sell. Meanwhile, Archie Costello, leader of the school's secret society, The Vigils, chooses Jerry for one of the assignments that this group often forces members of the student body to perform. Jerry is tasked to refuse to sell chocolates for ten days. Once the ten days are up, however, Jerry -- for reasons even he doesn't fully understand at first -- chooses to continue to refuse to sell the chocolates. As a result, the incensed Brother Leon forces Archie to make sure that The Vigils ensure the chocolate sale's success. The ensuing campaign of harassment and violence against Jerry tests his resolve and his very spirit, leaving it uncertain until the last moment how Jerry will ultimately respond.  The sequel to this novel is Beyond the Chocolate War.

What makes this novel an amazing piece of writing to me is the completely honest way in which Cormier describes characters' innermost thoughts -- especially their incomplete understandings of their own motives. Examples of this are Jerry's delayed understanding of why he was taking a stand about the chocolate sale and lack of complete self-awareness even in malicious characters like Archie (e.g., "Archie was always puzzled about whatever there was inside of him that enjoyed these performances -- toying with kids..." p. 31).  With its very character-driven plot, the story is riveting, as we are kept guessing about how far each character will go to make their stand or further their own agenda.  One potential controversial aspect of this novel is the violence committed by some characters, yet this violence is integral to the story as it graphically shows what happens when bullying is left unchecked.

This book could help any teen who is being bullied, by making them realize that they are not alone in being mistreated.  It should further help them to realize what may be the consequences of not seeking adult or other assistance against bullies, and what the ultimate emotional cost of unchecked bullying can be.  Teens who suspect that a friend may be being bullied -- by noting changes in the friend's behavior -- will hopefully be inspired to intervene.

A Girl Scout as a child, I had always hated having to sell those overpriced cookies!  So the idea of a novel about a boy refusing to sell chocolates on behalf of his school -- albeit in a much more serious context -- really intrigued me.

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