Monday, October 28, 2013

A War for Something More

Published:  August 1st, 1986 (first published March 12, 1974)
The Chocolate War
By: Robert Cormier
Laurel Leaf
ISBN-13:  9780440944591
Stunned by his mother's recent death and appalled by the way his father sleepwalks through life, Jerry Renault, a New England high school student, ponders the poster in his locker - Do I dare disturb the universe?

Part of his universe is Archie Costello, leader of a secret school societ-the Virgils-and master of intimidation.  Archie himself is intimidated by a cool, ambitious teacher into having the Virgils spearhead the annual fund-raising event-a chocolate sale.  When Jerry refuses to be bullied into selling chocolates, he becomes a hero, but his defiance is a threat to Archie, the Virgils, and the school.  In the inevitable showdown, Archie's skill at intimidation turns Jerry from hero to outcast, to victim, leaving him alone and terribly vulnerable.
     Jerry is going to the best boys day-school in his hometown, dealing with the loss of his Mother and the growing distance between himself and his Father.  So when he is given a task by the school's secret society, The Vigils, he decides to just complete it without making any waves.  He is supposed to refuse to sell chocolates in the school sale until Archie, the leader of the Vigils, tells him to say 'yes.'  Jerry decides to keep saying 'no' and defy The Vigils, Archie and Brother Leon, the semi-sadistic Monk teacher in charge of the sale.  But challenging the authority of the Vigils (and in effect Archie) turns Jerry first into a hero, and then an outcast when the tables are turned once more, in a showdown that could mean lasting damage both physically and mentally to Jerry.  Is it important to do the right thing, regardless of self-preservation?  And when is it time to say 'enough'?
     Unlike a lot of middle and high school students, I was never assigned to read this book in school.  I have always wondered about it since then, and as I am trying to read classic YA and children's lit that I missed as a kid/teen, I figured that I would give this one a shot.  It was definitely interesting and still surprisingly relevant for a book that was written and published in the 70s.  My only complaint would be that it's pretty moralistic for a book that's so short on character depth or development on the 'good' focus character of the novel (Jerry) and heavy on it for the 'evil' focus characters, Archie and Obie (Archie's lackey at first, something outside that later).  The point of the book itself was whether or not doing the right thing is worth it, even if you get the shit kicked out of you for it and nothing changes anyways.  Can it still be considered making a difference if no one is better off from you taking a stand, and you yourself are only worse off?  Or as Jerry would phrase it with his quote from T.S. Eliot, "Dare I disturb the universe?"  Also, the destruction of Jerry's friend Goober into a shaky, neurotic mess by the Vigils and their tasks was pretty heartbreaking.  But was he a good guy, once he decided not to take a stand anymore and to run away instead?  What exactly makes you a 'good guy' or a 'bad guy'?  Questions for the ages people.
     Overall, it was a pretty harsh look at the evils of the world and the fact that good doesn't always win out.  That sometimes evil kicks good's ass and prospers from its pain.  It was a difficult book to read and watching Archie's descent from schoolyard bully into clear-cut psychopath was just plain scary and uncomfortable as a human being with normal emotional reactions.  A book worth reading, if only to look at the development of YA and to study the psychology of human beings with teenagers, on their own terms.  Not necessarily the most well-written book I've ever read, but definitely a thinker and the content/execution is impressive for its small stature and the time period it was published in.  And as a reader I can totally respect that.
VERDICT:  3.75/5  Stars
**No money or favors were exchanged for this review. This book is now available in stores, online, or maybe even at your local library.**

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