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Robert Cormier – The Chocolate War

October 20, 2014

79. The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier (1974)

Length: 192 pages
Genre: Young Adult, General Fiction

Started: 14 September 2014
Finished: 17 September 2014

Where did it come from? The friends of the library booksale.
Why do I have it? I feel like it got mentioned on LibraryThing at some point, but it got pulled off the TBR shelf for Banned Books Week this year.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 13 January 2007.

Do I dare disturb
the universe? Not unless
you want to get beat.

Summary: Everyone knows that Trinity, an exclusive New England Catholic prep school, is really run by the Vigils, a secret group of students who dole out “assignments” to their fellow students. These assignments are usually disruptive or embarrassing pranks, but nobody dares defy the Vigils, and even the teachers look the other way. Freshman Jerry Renault is still dealing with his mother’s death, but all he wants is to get through classes and make the football team. But he soon draws the attention of the Vigils, and is given an assignment: refuse to participate in the mandatory fundraising chocolate sale. This puts him right in the line of fire from the particularly sadistic teacher organizing the sale, so Jerry should be relieved when the Vigils order him to start selling chocolate a few weeks later. But for some reason, Jerry continues to refuse, and that’s when the real trouble begins.

Review: I read this for Banned Books Week, as it’s been one of the most frequently challenged/banned books almost every year since it came out in the 70s. I can see why this book is assigned – it’s a realistic look at bullying/hazing in a boys’ school that would provide an interesting springboard for classroom discussion on the topic. It also has aged really well – there’s a few bits with hippies in the park that date it, and of course the prices make it obvious the book was written several decades ago (“But no one will buy a candy bar for two whole dollars!!!”) – but the situations and the motivations are (sadly) just as applicable today as they were in the 70s. It’s also immediately apparent why it’s been challenged – there’s some frank references to masturbation, although nothing particularly explicit, some violence (the book is about bullying, after all, and some of it is physical bullying), plus it doesn’t paint a particularly flattering portrait of authority or Catholic schools. (There’s also some “curse words”, but of the “crap” and “damn” variety, which still scandalize the characters.) Personally, I don’t think any of these things make it inappropriate for high school reading – on the contrary, it presents what I imagine is probably a pretty realistic view into the mind of a high school boy.

But, while I certainly wouldn’t ban this book, I also don’t know if I would assign it. First, while the references to sex and masturbation didn’t bother me in and of themselves, I was put off by the fact that this book almost entirely lacks female characters, and the women that do show up are only there to be ogled and serve as fuel to the boys’ masturbatory fantasies. But more than that, I had a problem with the message of the book. Jerry has a “Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?” poster in his locker that serves as a central theme of the book. But by the end, it becomes apparent that Cormier’s answer to this question is “No, not unless you want the crap beat unrelentingly out of you.” I don’t necessarily need my books to have a happy ending, and I realize that the plucky underdog doesn’t always win, but I found this book to be pretty bleak and ultimately kind of hopeless. Someone at my book club pointed out that this might be a generational thing, that in 1974 we were at the tail end of the Vietnam War, and maybe the “plucky underdog” mentality wasn’t the prevailing attitude at the time, which was an interesting point I hadn’t considered. But still, it led to me ultimately not really enjoying the reading experience.

I also wasn’t a huge fan of the writing. Cormier’s got an excellent way with description, and can craft a beautiful sentence. But the flow of this book was odd, jumping from character to character – mostly Jerry and Archie, the de facto leader of the Vigils, but also a number of secondary characters. This style isn’t normally an issue for me, but in this case, whole pages would be given over to the backstory of a newly-introduced narrator… who in a few more pages would disappear, never to be heard from again. Distracting, to say the least. Overall, it was an interesting read, but not one I particularly enjoyed or am ever likely to revisit. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Eh. It’s short enough that it’s a quick read, and I can see how it would make a good read for a class discussion, but as a read-for-pleasure book, it was not my cup of tea.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: The 3 Rs Blog, Citizen Reader, Lizzy’s Literary Life and more at the Book Blogs Search Engine.
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: They murdered him.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 69: “But first of all, the old faithfuls, the people who had become regular customers: Mrs. Swanson who sometimes smelled of liquor but was always eager to buy anything although she kept him talking too long, rambling on about people John Sulkey didn’t even know; and good old reliable Uncle Louie who was always simonizing his car although simonizing cars seemed part of the Dark Ages these days; and then the Capoletti’s at the end of the street who always invited him in for something to eat, cold pizza that John wasn’t exactly crazy about and the smell of garlic that almost knocked you down but you had to make sacrifices, big and small, for the sake of Service To The School…” – to shine or polish to a high sheen, esp. with wax.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 20, 2014 9:00 am

    I think I liked this more than you did but I get all of the points you make, especially about the female characters.

  2. October 20, 2014 9:14 am

    I read this one a couple of years ago for banned book week. I enjoyed it for what it is about but it is not exceptional :)

  3. annettesbookspot permalink
    October 20, 2014 9:55 am

    It’s been a long time since I’ve read this but you made me want to read it again. I really enjoyed your well thought out review. Interesting perspective that got me thinking… Thanks!

  4. October 24, 2014 12:03 pm

    Cormier always said his “point” was to make the reader mad. Make the reader mad about what happens to Jerry in the end. By giving the book the ending he did, he forces the reader to really look at how people in groups really behave. He wants his readers to react by saying “No, this can’t be true!” even though they know it very often is the case.

    It’s interesting to me to look at reasons why people wouldn’t assign books. Just what is the line between “not assigning” and “banning”. By no means do I mean to suggest that the two are the same thing, I don’t think they are, but sometimes the reasoning for each looks similar. It’s a point I always wonder about when “Banned Books Week” comes around. How is not assigning a book because of it’s depiction of women or it’s lack of any women different from banning a book because it discusses sexuality? Probably a good topic for a Sunday Salon post….

    By the way I basically agree with you about the need to present a balanced cast of characters when selecting books for classes. If I choose The Chocolate War, I would look for another book with an all female cast of characters. This is basically what we did last year when we redesigned the 7th grade reading list for our school.

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