Review: The Chocolate War - Robert Cormier.
Long before it was fashionable for publishers to say that there was no such thing as a children's book (just books with 'a broad appeal') that is, before Harry Potter, I read Robert Cormier and other books designated teenage. One reason was their relative brevity compared to adult novels - this appealed to my low boredom threshold. Another reason was that I have always enjoyed seeking out things that others might not know of or know enough about to enjoy. It occurred to me then and now, that there is a whole library of books untapped by adults where the distinction between adult and youth fiction is often a false one.
'The Chocolate War' is set around young people, but don't let this put you off. It is also plotted around issues and difficulties that afflict young people. Adults can read at a safe distance.
The story centres on Jerome Renault, Jerry, who is grieving for his mother after her death from cancer. Jerry is desperate to belong. Jerry is keen to be normal, regular, square - prime material for the school gang, The Vigils.
The Vigils is no regular gangÃ¢ÂÂ¦they are not bullies and they do not use violence. This is a society of smart boys who set challenges other boys must go through to prove themselves strong enough, worthy of being chosen. Boys chosen for assignments are not given a choice, they are not allowed to refuse.
Enter Archie, the assigner of the Vigils. Archie 'believed in always doing the smart thing. Not the thing you ached to do, not the impulsive act but the thing that would pay off later.' Thus Archie and Jerry are set on a collision course. This collision course is set against the backdrop of the annual school chocolate selling fundraiser. Brother Leon, acting head of Trinity School, has been ambitious in his purchase of chocolates, meaning that each boy must sell double the number of chocolates he would normally need to sell. Brother Leon recruits Archie and the Vigils in an attempt to make the great chocolate sell a success. Brother Leon sees the chocolate sell about more than fundraising; for him it is about school spirit, about standing shoulder to shoulder with the other boys, about standing up and being counted.
Brother Leon is as much a bully as Archie, and it is Jerry's bad luck that Archie does not like Brother Leon telling him what to do.
Jerry Renault's assignment is to refuse to sell the chocolates for ten days, something no other boy has ever done. Jerry recognises that life is not pleasant: ' And he did see - that life was rotten, that there was no heroes really and that you couldn't trust anyone, not even yourself.' It is a bleak view of the world and a particularly unpleasant view of the world of boys and men.
Then Jerry's assignment is over, but he continues to refuse to sell the chocolates. Jerry doesn't know why he does this, but the reader knows it will end in tears.
'The Chocolate War' is a very unsettling read and you're left with an uneasy feeling. There is a pressure on young people to conform, and there are dire consequences for those who are different. It is Jerry who quotes Eliot, 'Do I dare to disturb the universe?' and this need, Jerry's need to stand alone drives him to his continued refusal to sell the chocolates.
Jerry's stand inspires other boys to refuse to sell too and this is where Brother Leon's over ambition becomes exposed. As Goober, Jerry's friend says, 'There's something rotten in that school. More than rotten.' And as the plot unfolds, you realise there's more than a rite of passage involved, there's more than the chocolate fundraise, Jerry's future is at stake, and the school's too.