Thursday, September 13, 2012

Educate Emma: Books: The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

Dust Jacket Description:

"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 society-the Vigils-and master of intimidation.  Archie himself is intimidated by a cool, ambitious teacher into having the Vigils 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 Vigils, 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."

Characters: I'd heard of The Chocolate War in passing a couple of times, and when I saw it at a library sale, I figured it was time to read it. The book's character were a bit of a hit and miss for me. The main focuses of Archie and Jerry were brilliantly crafted. Jerry's sadness and defiance were justified in equal measures, and he just felt incredibly realistic. I loved how Cormier played with Archie as a villain, and made the point that not all horrible people are punished for their deeds. Both were multi-layered and interesting. Other characters fell short. I thought a lot more could have been done with Obie and Brother Leon never truly became sinister to me. While I understand that the book was published in the seventies, the cliched use of Janza as the gay bully-monster made me roll my eyes.  I also was a little peeved by the depiction of girls in the novel. It may be set in a boys-only school, but I found it bizarre for a whole novel to be devoid of any important female characters, or at least, any female character with a voice.  3 and a half flowers.

Writing: The voice of this novel seems very teenage-boy, and in a way that we don't see often in current YA. Male protagonists in current YA are most often depicted as awkward, overly intellectual and generally inept at social situations. I can't say that a few of the boys in The Chocolate War are any different, but the varied ensemble of characters gave a more diverse spectrum of male personalities. I liked that. 4 and a half flowers. 

Plot: With such a great build-up of tension, I was a little disappointed by the bizarre nature of the third act. If there had been more hints to the resolution, I could have handled its realism, but it just felt like awkward without any clues beforehand. Besides that, I did enjoy the politics of the Vigils and the conflict between the school officials and the boys. 3 flowers.

End: I loved how the book circled back to the beginning, and how Cormier insists on being honest about how our society works. It's a difficult ending to deal with, and that's why it's thought provoking. 5 flowers.

Dust Jacket Description: It's a great set-up, but it needs one more paragraph to actually hook in readers. The last component just makes it sound like we've already been told how it ends. 3 and a half flowers.

Overall: After reading The Candy Darlings, it was interesting to see the male side of the teen bullying phenomena. It has a strong voice and interesting thesis, but the jarring climax, lack of female characters and depiction of gay people made this book feel off to me. However, don't just take my word for it, because the book does have great writing and main characters. It may suit you better. 3 and a half flowers. 


  1. Great review! You're probably right that the time this book was written has a huge effect on how some characters are portrayed, and that may rub contemporary readers the wrong way. But it still sounds pretty compelling and worthwhile. Thanks!

    1. It's worth a read for the voice and message, but very much a product of its time.