Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Reading "The Chocolate War" in 2011

I'll admit it: I had not read The Chocolate War (1974) until early 2011 when I was putting together a Young Adult Literature course. I'm not sure why I hadn't read this one in Middle School or in Junior High, but for some reason I didn't.  It's possible the novel's overwhelming maleness turned me off, but I don't know for sure.

I knew a few things about The Chocolate War before reading it this January.  I knew it was, for example, a much-banned book, and I knew that it is read in schools today.  In fact, I polled my YA-course students and many of them had read The Chocolate War as part of a Middle School or Junior High English class.  (One of my students read it in a fourth-grade class!)  The inclusion of The Chocolate War in so many school curricula surprised me as The Chocolate War holds the #4 spot on the ALA's 100 most frequently challenged books list (1990-1999) and is #3 on the 2000-2009 list.

So, what makes The Chocolate War relevant today 35 years since its release?  Is it relevant only because it is controversial?  Is The Chocolate War a good Young Adult novel?

First a brief plot summary with spoilers: Trinity High School serves as the novel's setting--one as grim, and brown and gray as the road featured on the newest edition's cover.  Two forces rule Trinity: 1) the Priests, headed temporarily by the malevolent Brother Leon; 2) the Vigils, a secret gang of Trinity students led by Archie Costello.  The story centers around the school's fundraiser, which this year is selling cut-rate Mother's Day chocolates with the lavender "Mom" ribbon removed.  (The discarding of the lavender ribbons serves as a signal of the lack of color and of women and girls in the novel.)  The novel's protagonist, Jerry Renault, receives an assignment from Archie--he is to refuse to sell the chocolates for 10 days.  Jerry's refusal enrages Brother Leon, a fact that earns Jerry some respect from his classmates, especially those who are not associated with the Vigils.  Brother Leon is worried about the chocolate sale and asks Archie for his assistance in "motivating" the students and in pressuring Jerry to accept some chocolates for sale.  When Jerry's 10 days are up, however, Jerry decides to continue to refuse the chocolates.  Why?  He tells another student he's not quite sure, but wonders "Do I dare disturb the universe?"  Jerry's continuing refusal to participate in the fundraiser leads to bullying from all sides (including from the teachers) and culminates in a fight with a member of the Vigils in which Jerry is brutally beaten.

Several things surprised me about The Chocolate War in 2011:

1. Cormier's sophisticated narration.  Cormier uses a third-person narration, unusual for YA problem novels even in the 1970s.  The point of view shifts from character to character--some of them minor players in the story, some major--as the story unfolds.  In fact, the story opens from the point of view of a very minor character (Obie) and it isn't until several chapters into the novel that we understand that Jerry is the novel's protagonist.  The effect of this strategy is in the foregrounding of the setting; The collective bullying is more important than the individual's suffering;
2. There is no lesson. Jerry doesn't learn anything from resisting his bullies, except that perhaps he should have gone along with the crowd;
3. Cormier's teens (Archie, Emile) are just as corrupt as the adults, and his adults (Brother Eugene) have the potential to be as innocent as some of the teens;
4. The frank description of young male sexuality and, in particular, of masturbation.  The teens' sex lives are as alienating and as futile as Trinity High itself.

The Chocolate War inspired excellent discussion in my YA lit course and resulted in some interesting blog posts, including one on Jerry's identity, one looking at The Chocolate War as an allegory for Nazi Germany, and one questioning the definition of The Chocolate War as a Young Adult novel.  I left my reading of The Chocolate War certain about one thing--The Chocolate War is an ambitious, literary novel.  It is also a novel more adults should read; It's an important crossover work and proof that Young Adult literature can be as significant as "literary fiction."

Crossover potential YA -->Adult: Absolutely.
C. Anita Tarr's 2002 "The Absence of Moral Agency in Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War" (in Children's Literature, vol. 30) changed the way I read The Chocolate War, however.  I will post about these reconsiderations soon.