Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Banned Book #7: "The Chocolate War"

by Pa Rock

If there is one setting that seems to lend itself to banned books, particularly those banned books that are primarily "teen" novels, it appears to be life in a private school.  A Separate Peace dealt with life in a private all-boys school in New England just as World War II was starting.  Looking for Alaska explored life among teens, of both genders, at a contemporary private school in rural Alabama.  The Chocolate War, my current encounter with a banned book, talks about life in a Catholic private school in Massachusetts in the 1950's.   All three of these novels deal with the lives and concerns of teens as they learn to separate themselves from their families and function collectively with others who are going through the same growth and development processes.

The Chocolate War was written by acclaimed author Robert Cormier in 1974.  The novel was quickly touted as one of the best teen novels of all time, and it was often compared to A Separate Peace and Lord of the Flies due in no small part to the cruelty that pervades the work.

The central focus of this book is a fictional Catholic school called "Trinity" which served as a private high school for boys who lived out in the local community.  Trinity is an appropriate name for the school, because life there basically existed in three segments:  the "normal" students who attended the school hoping to become ready for college through the school's rigorous curriculum, the Catholic priests who resided on campus and ran the school, and the "Vigils,"a gang of sorts who tended to make things miserable for the other students as well as for the faculty and administration.

The action centered on the school's annual chocolate sale, an activity that the school counted on to bring much needed funds to the campus.  Brother Leo was the acting headmaster and a bit of a sociopath.  He was also in charge of the chocolate sale.  This particular year he doubled the size of the sale and the price of the chocolates in the hopes of setting some type of record and earning enough glory for himself to help him become the next permanent headmaster.  Brother Leo enlisted the aid of Archie, a student who was the "assigner" for the Vigils and the group's de facto leader, in running the chocolate sale.  Archie himself was also a bit of a sociopath.    The students, the third part of the trinity, were ultimately responsible for walking door to door in their community and selling the chocolates.  Each student had to sell fifty boxes in order for the sale to be successful.

Jerry Renault was just an average kid at Trinity.  He wanted three things:  to get a good education, to play football, and to get a certain young lady to notice him.  Early on in the story he became a pawn between Brother Leo and Archie - and ultimately a symbol of defiance for all of the other boys at the school when he refused to sell the chocolates - thus putting both Leo's and Archie's tenuous claims of power in positions of vulnerability.

Before the chocolate sale was over, most of the students and the school itself were swept along in tides of emotional and physical cruelty that were almost unimaginable.

The Chocolate War is a tightly written tale of man's inhumanity to man.  It is disturbing, yet also engrossing - much as a bloody car wreck along the side of the road trends to be engrossing.  This book is a road map to our dark places, and it should be read at least as a warning of where we are capable of wandering when we are part of a crowd.

The Chocolate War is a clash between strength of character and blind allegiance.   It is a powerful, powerful book - one that will not leave readers with feelings of comfort.

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