I first read John Knowles' literary masterpiece, A Separate Peace, back in the 1960's while I was still in high school. First published in 1959, the novel was still relatively new when I discovered it on the shelves of a small, independent bookstore on the square in Neosho, Missouri. (Remember "independent" bookstores, with actual books on actual shelves?) The story was set in a boy's preparatory school in New Hampshire in 1942. Most of the lads involved in this fictional tale were juniors or seniors and preparing to leave school and be pulled into the war effort. World War II looming on the near horizon provided the pressure and sense of urgency that animated this work.
My first reading of A Separate Peace left me with a sense of what life was like at a high school, albeit a private boarding school for boys from well-to-do families, just two short decades before my own time in high school. The distant drumbeat bearing down on their lives had been the Second World War. In the 1960's, our sense of urgency emanated from a far-off place called Vietnam. Some of the feelings and emotions that washed over the boys in this novel were sweeping through my generation as well.
I remember, from my first reading of the novel, those feelings regarding the uncertainty of what it would mean to serve in the military in a time of war. I also remember that it was quite a poignant tale about the tight emotional bond between two boys who were preparing to enter their senior year at Devon, the private school. The boys were roommates. Gene, the narrator of the story was a scholar, and Phineas (Finny) was an athlete. Their relationship was symbiotic, with each of boy helping the other conquer his weaknesses.
The other thing I remember from the first reading was the major plot point: how one of the boys suffered a grievous injury as a result of a spur-of-the-moment, yet intentional, act of the other. It was a good story, with much to contemplate.
Twenty years or so after that initial reading, I again came across a copy of this book, and, remembering how much I liked it, I set about reading it again. That time the war seemed to be less of a factor in the story, as it was in my own life as well. More of the focus of the story seemed to rest on the emotional attachment between Gene and Finny, and instead of being a symbiotic relationship, it felt more like some sort of twisted and unacknowledged romantic entanglement that was destined to end tragically.
Now, thirty years beyond the second reading, I have again walked the halls of Devon School with Gene and Finny - as a part of my goal to read ten "banned" books prior to "Banned Books Week" next October. This time I discovered that my memory is fading and I had forgotten many aspects of the story that dealt with daily life at the school. I had retained the major plot points, but much of the background story felt as if I were encountering it for the first time. The third reading seemed to emphasize the undercurrent of pacifism that flowed through the story, rather than the overt eagerness of a few of the boys to become men and heroically march off to war.
I'm not clear as to why A Separate Peace has been so often banned by various groups. Some of their displeasure may come from scattered sentiments within the novel which feel pacifistic, and others may be uncomfortable with the intense, yet ambiguous, relationship between Gene and Finny. Whatever the reasoning, it is a shame to summarily reject something this good.
A Separate Peace is an extraordinary novel, one that has withstood the test of time. It can be read on a variety of levels, each telling the same story, yet in a way that speaks distinctly to readers of different ages and different backgrounds. It is an American masterpiece in every sense of the word.
Only the narrowest of minds would ban a book this good!