Cormier, Robert. The Chocolate War. 191 pages. Tr. $13.31, ISBN: 978-0-7587-4778-5
Plot: Jerry Renault is a teenage student at Trinity, a private Catholic preparatory school. Tradition and codes for behavior at the institution are long-held and sacrosanct. No one thinks of bucking the system. The students are controlled in two ways, by a student secret society called the Vigils and by the teachers and administrators, led by an often sadistic Brother Leon, the acting headmaster, who seems to love watching kids squirm. The Vigils hand out assignments – pranks that are attention-grabbing yet harmless, like making one student go into a classroom at night to loosen all the screws on the desks and chairs, to hilarious and shocking effect when the morning class begins. Just as the annual chocolate sale begins, Brother Leon ups the ante, challenging the kids to sell twice as much. No one questions it. When the Vigils, who have vowed to support the sale, give Jerry the assignment to refuse to sell chocolates for ten days, Jerry is terrified but complies. As pressure ratchets up and the ten day mark hits, he continues to refuse to sell for the fundraiser, making him the subject of prank calls and bullying. Eventually, a final punishment for Jerry’s defiance is staged.
Critical Evaluation: Cormier’s book takes to power structures and threatens them solely through the power of one word: No. With a fast-moving plot and careful structuring, he creates a suspenseful novel that begs readers to continue reading until the resolution. Jerry is bullied in ways that reveal the desire of the powers that be to maintain control and terrorize anyone who might step out of rank. The book is excellent at describing the ways leaders wield power and the sinister effects that controlling others has on those doing the controlling and the often willing subjects of power games. Archie Costello, the second in command, will remind readers of Shakespeare’s famous villain, Iago, and Brother Leon has touches of another dastardly Shakespearian character, Richard III. Although the story was published in 1974 and is imbued with the spirit of the civil rights protests of the sixties, it resonates today as a brilliant meditation on power, authority, and victimhood.
Reader’s Annotation: When Jerry Renault refuses to participate in his Catholic school’s fundraiser, he is seen as a hero by some and a villain by others. Does he dare continue bucking the system?
Author bio: Growing up in Massachusetts, Robert Cormier’s childhood was, on the surface, uneventful. He was, however, picked on for being bookish and there was a murder in his hometown, which made the surface placidity seem bit suspect.
Cormier never lived more than three miles away from his home. He married and had four children and became a journalist. When one of his sons refused to participate in a school fundraiser, he struck upon the idea for The Chocolate War. Although many of his characters are young, he never set out to be a young adult writer. His books, from the start, were controversial because of their realistic and intense subject matter and their dark, disturbing endings
Genre: Realistic fiction.
Curriculum Ties: N/A
Booktalking Ideas: Focus on Jerry’s defiance. In a highly controlled environment, what does a rebel do to the social structure?
Talk about the secret society, a gang-like club with strict codes and rules.
In what kinds of settings do people tend to bow down to authority and why do some stand up to question it while others suffer in silence?
Reading Level/Interest Age: Ages 12 and up
Challenge Issues: This book has been the subject of repeated challenges because of its lack of a hopeful resolution.
Challenge Response: Listen carefully to the reason for the challenge. Keep some copies of the numerous glowing reviews of this book to hand out and focus on the fact that it is now an accepted classic in the cannon of YA literature.
Why Included: It is a great book for teen boys who get very involved in the power struggle at this all-boys school.