Friday, October 17, 2008

Book Review: The Chocolate War

Title: The Chocolate War
Author: Robert Cormier
Genre: Young Adult Literary Fiction
Grade: A

Book Summary (From Inside Flap): Stunned by his mother's recent death and appalled by his father's sleepwalking through life, Jerry Renalut ponders the poster in his locker: Do I dare disturb the universe?

Part of his universe is Archie Costello, leader of a secret high school society--the Vigils--and master of intimidation. Archie himself is intimated by a teacher, Brother Leon, into having the Vigils spearhead the annual fund-raising event, a chocolate sale. When Jerry refuses to sell the chocolate, he indeed disturbs the universe--and becomes a hero. But his defiance is a threat to the Vigils, Brother Leon, and the school. In a final, unforgettable showdown, Archie's brutal cunning turns Jerry from hero to outcast to victim, leaving him vulnerable and alone...

Review: Here's the deal people, yesterday I was heating up my lunch in the kitchenette at work and had this book with me (because I was planning to read during lunch) and another woman asks me what the book is about. I tell her it's the story of this kid who refuses to sell chocolates at his high school, and then I realize that this sounds like the stupidest book in the world--why would anyone care about reading about fund-raising? I'll tell you why ladies and gentleman--because this book isn't about a chocolate sale, it's about peer pressure, conformity, and the difference that one individual can make in any given situation.

Cormier's novel is brilliant--the dialogue and writing regarding perceptions of others' motivations is sharp and incisive. Cormier writes in third person and allows us to glimpse into the minds and hearts of characters with a myriad of motivations. Most remarkable is how nearly everyone who is an antagonist in this story (Archie and the school bully Emile Janza) use their manipulation and intimidation as a facade to hide their true personalities. The only antagonist we don't get to look inside is Brother Leon, but we're given some backstory on his motivations that is interesting.

What I appreciate about the antagonists in this story is that Cormier is unflinching in their evil--he doesn't "clean them up" in the end, they don't learn their lesson, they actually come out completely unscathed. That's a hard pill for someone like me, an eternal optimist who believes there must be something redeeming in everyone, to swallow. It makes me think about what Cormier's psychology of society must have been like, and how that affected his life. Which leads me to realize that there are people out there who have a different definition of the total depravity of man, and to consider how that influences them and their dealings with me. (I love a story that makes me think about life and interactions, which is why The Chocolate War is so much more than a story about a chocolate sale.)

There is one primary protagonist (Jerry Renault) in this story, but there are other characters who try to defy the corruption on their own level--two of the Vigils (Obie and Carter) try to impact the Universe as does Jerry's friend, the Goober, in his own way. Again, we're learning about psychology here, folks--you may not be leading the revolution, but we can all do our part to fight corruption and evil in the world. At the least, we can refuse to participate in mistreatment. I'm not talking high-and-lofty stuff like the situation in Darfur here (although that's necessary), I'm talking about the way you view others, how you judge the people you work/live/learn with and how your pre-conceived notions of their motivations and backstory influence the way you treat them. If anything, Cormier wants us to learn that we don't know why people do the things they do, what has happened in their past, and we need to develop connections with people before making unfounded assumptions about their value or worth as an individual. Pretty cool stuff for a story about candy, eh?

This story was deep and rich (kind of like the best-tasting chocolates coincidentally), and the characters were so well constructed. I wonder at the end what happens to Emile, Obie and Carter, but I don't get my answers and, surprisingly, that's okay with me.

I had to give an A rating, rather than A+, because I can't be a hypocrite... if you don't know what that's in reference to, check out my review of Looking for Alaska, and read paragraphs 4 and 5 about the language in this book. I hate to do it, but I have to for the sake of consistency.

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