Welcome to 'Fine Lines', the Friday feature in which we give a sentimental, sometimes-critical, far more wrinkled look at the children's and YA books we loved in our youth. This week, New York Observer reporter, blogger and Postcards From Yo Momma co-creator Doree Shafrir rereads 'The Chocolate War,' Robert Cormier's 1974 novel about a 14-year-old boy who stands up to the bullies at his high school.
Back when teenagers still bought books that didn't feature a paranormal love interest, a school for wizards, or spoiled Upper East Side prep schoolers, there were books like Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War, which featured an all-male, working-class cast of characters at a Catholic school in Massachusetts (as did most of Cormier's books; he grew up Catholic in Leominster, Mass.). In fact, when I suggested rereading The Chocolate War, I soon realized that I had had another one of Cormier's books in mind, the deeply weird, depressing I Am the Cheese, in which the reader slowly realizes that the narrator is, in fact, in a mental hospital and tried to kill himself.
Cheery stuff! But that was the world that Cormier portrayed, a world divided into those who challenged authority (which was usually wrong, bordering on evil) and those who quietly submitted.
Indeed, the protagonist of The Chocolate War is a freshman named Jerry Renault who defies tradition at his high school by refusing to sell boxes of chocolates as part of the annual fundraiser. Jerry's mom is dead (cancer) and his dad works late at the pharmacy, and they live in a small third-floor apartment in a nameless town.
Rereading Cormier's book, I was struck by not only just how very '70s this all felt — the latchkey kid heating up some Campbell's Soup in front of the TV and putting himself to bed — but also how Cormier portrays a world that's decidedly working or middle class, and that's a world that's pretty gray and grim. There's little happiness here; the book opens with Jerry getting pummeled at football practice, and — in contrast to the almost-expected happy endings of today — ends on a really discordant, violent note. (The book has long been on the American Library Association's list of most-banned young adult books for its violence and sexual graphicness, though this mostly involves descriptions of masturbation, you know, like a kid getting caught yanking it in the boys' bathroom with his pants around his ankles.)
Even Archie Connor, the leader of a shady gang called The Vigils, who act as a sort of secret fraternity at the school and keep underclassmen in line through sadistic "assignments," seems like a loser; he has the school in the palm of his hand, but he's failing English. It's also a world that's almost exclusively male. The only women who show up are Jerry's mom, who's dead, and a couple objects of desire, one of whom makes a cameo when Jerry looks her name up in the phone book and cold-calls her. It doesn't go well, which is kind of the theme of this whole book: Life sucks, and then you die. Another student reflects on his parents:
He thought of his own parents and their useless lives — his father collapsing into his nap every night after supper and his mother looking tired and dragged-out all the time. What the hell were they living for? ... How could he tell [his mom] that he hated the house, that his mother and father were dead and didn't know it, that if it wasn't for television the place would be like a tomb.
Just makes you want to jump out a window, doesn't it?
At the beginning of the book, Jerry gets caught staring as he waits for the bus at a group of hippies who hang out at a park in town. One of them confronts him and says, "Go get on your bus, square boy. Don't miss the bus, boy. You're missing a lot of things in the world, better not miss that bus." So Jerry gets on the bus and thinks "of his life — going to school and coming home. Even though his tie was loose, dangling on his shirt, he yanked it off." Oho! The anti-establishment rebel! So, I thought, let's settle in and enjoy a ride through anti-authoritarianism... Except it doesn't exactly work out like that.
Throughout the book, Cormier carefully sets Jerry up as a rebel, the lone voice willing to challenge the oppression of Brother Leon, the acting headmaster, who has allegedly embezzled money and thus must make up for it by selling thousands of boxes of chocolates; and Archie, who makes a deal with Brother Leon that the Vigils will ensure that the chocolate sale goes smoothly. So when Jerry refuses to sell the chocolates, he's taking on not only the school, but also the school bullies. Like the scene with the hippies, Cormier continues on the heavy-handed symbolism route thereafter — Jerry has a poster in his locker of a lone man on a beach with a quote from T.S. Eliot's poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" at the bottom, "Do I dare disturb the universe?" Get it? He's an iconoclast! He might even singlehandedly bring about change. How very '60s of him!
Alas. If the '60s were the decade of challenging authority and protesting and civil disobedience, the '70s were the decade when everyone came blinking into the sunlight and realized that there were limits to what they could change about the world. And so Cormier takes us all the way there, and then ends The Chocolate War with a violent boxing match between Jerry and a thuggish senior named Emile, and Archie and Brother Leon both return to their rightful (perhaps) place in the world order. One of Jerry's last thoughts of the book is about his friend Goober (no one names their characters Goober anymore!), the one boy in school who stood by him — until he gets "sick" for three days just when Jerry really could've used some help:
"It'll be all right, Jerry."
No it won't. He recognized Goober's voice and it was important to share the discovery with Goober. He had to tell Goober to play ball, to play football, to run, to make the team, to sell the chocolates, the sell whatever they wanted you to sell, to do whatever they wanted you to do. He tried to voice the words but there was something wrong with his mouth, his teeth, his face. But he went ahead anyway, telling Goober what he needed to know. They tell you to do your thing but they don't mean it. They don't want you to do your thing, too. It's a laugh, Goober, a fake. Don't disturb the universe, Goober, no matter what the posters say.