Thursday, October 2, 2008

Banned Books Week: Day Six
Disturbing the Universe

by Pa Rock
Cultural Commentator

I first read John Knowles novel of adolescent guilt and redemption, A Separate Peace, in the early 1960's shortly after it was published. At that time I was about the age of the two main characters, Gene and Phineas (Finny), who were students at a private boys high school in New Hampshire during World War II. The boys and their lives felt real, and while their circumstances were considerably better than my own, it was still easy to identify with their actions and the challenges they faced.

Gene and Finny met in the fall at their private school when they were assigned to room together. Gene was the quiet one, but he was gradually pulled from his shell by the popular and outgoing Finny. Finny was also the more athletic of the two. One afternoon as they were enjoying their ritual activity of jumping into the river from a high tree limb, Gene bent his legs suddenly as his friend was preparing to jump, causing Finny to fall from the tree and onto the riverbank. Finny's legs were shattered, along with many of his dreams. Months later after the guilt became too great, Gene told Finny that he intentionally caused him to fall. Finny, the loyal friend, refused to acknowledge the confession.

As the story progressed, Finny began to live the athletic aspects of his life through Gene, challenging him to do the things that he (Finny) could no longer accomplish. The war became more of a factor in life at the school, with some of the young men enlisting. As each of their lives achieved a more relevant focus to life in the real world, Finny became more marginalized. When others decided that his accident was intentionally caused by Gene, Finny fatefully stood by his friend. As Finny's body was subsumed by injury and pain, his bond with Gene served as his final grasp on life.

A Separate Peace is, in essence, a love story between two young men, a story where the needs of each was met by the abilities and determination of the other. It was this unusual bond that made many people nervous and resulted on the book being banned from high schools and some libraries.

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier is also about life in a private boys' high school. Love is not a factor in this widely banned book. Its focus is on rebellion against authority, another topic that is not overly valued in a society that prides itself on order and discipline.

Jerry Renault, the central figure in this story, was a freshman at the religious school. A group of boys called the Vigils harassed freshmen by giving them "assignments". One of Jerry's friends, "the Goober," got an assignment to loosen all of the screws in the furniture in a classroom one night, causing pandemonium when students poured into class the next morning. Jerry got an assignment of refusing to sell in the school's annual chocolate sale.

The chocolate sale was the big event at the school each year, earning a major portion of the school's revenue. Brother Leo ran the sale, and he managed it with a religious fervor and an iron hand. He was angry when he learned that Jerry wasn't supporting the sale, but settled back down when he found out that Jerry's refusal was a Vigil's assignment. When the assignment came to an end and Jerry still refused to sell the chocolates, a major battle of wills ensued between Brother Leo, the Vigils (who were his enforcers), and Jerry. It became one man against the system, and if that young man was allowed to prevail, the system would be irretrievably broken.

Jerry's motivation in standing up to Brother Leo and the Vigils was a poster in his locker that stated simply, "Do I dare disturb the universe?" His decision to act on that inspirational message set up the action of this novel and ensured its due recognition of becoming a "banned book."

Books get banned when they challenge someones comfort level, when they dare to disturb the universe of complacency with new ideas and threats to the status quo. But can we ever grow if we are always "protected" from new ideas and things that are different?

Read...and grow!

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