Title: The Chocolate War
Author: Robert Cormier
Genre: Classic YA Fiction
Number of Pages: 267
I have a mixed relationship with Robert Cormier. I liked his books Tunes for Bears to Dance To, The Rag and Bone Shop, and I Am the Cheese but I thought Tenderness was trash and a waste of my time and money. The Chocolate War is the most famous and controversial of Cormier’s novels, leading to a sequel and later movie adaptation but in my opinion it isn’t his best. I think any of the three books I mentioned that I liked are better showcases of his writing talents.
The Chocolate War is a typical ‘everyboy facing against evil and being broken by his horrific circumstances’ Cormier book (Tenderness is the only book I’ve read by him that doesn’t follow that general theme.) Jerry is a teenager at an all-boys prep school who recently lost his mother to cancer. When the guys at school are initiated to sell a bunch of chocolates for ‘school spirit,’ Jerry refuses.
He isn’t sure why; maybe he just sees the artifice behind the whole thing. Not only to the faculty of the school benefit from the sales, so do the school bullies who are members of the covert group ‘The Vigils.’ One of the teachers, Brother Leon, has agreed to turn a blind eye to the Vigils’ actions if they help enforce the chocolate sales (Brother Leon spent money the school didn’t have on candy for the fundraiser and now he’s in deep shit.) The Vigils start terrorizing Jerry and harassing him at home and at school.
This book was just so dramatic. The Vigils (led by sociopath Archie) feel like a group of supervillains pulling all the strings in the school. Thematically it was intriguing but it could have been a little more nuanced. I had to wonder if Brother Leon was a coded homosexual (or possibly a hebephile/pedophile.) Regardless, I don’t think he could have been any more of a dick if he tried.
I think he was even more evil than Archie, at least because he’s the adult in the situation and is supposed to be in charge of the well-being of the students. Poor Jerry didn’t stand against these people. I think one of the most interesting aspects was the relationship between Jerry and his father. Jerry thinks his dad is weak and has a boring life but his dad really does try his best.
Jerry’s fears of becoming an adult includes ending up like his father, which I think is a feeling a lot of young adults have at some point. They see their parents’ failures and want to become something different.
It was a very realistic dynamic but I wish Jerry’s dad could have seen how much trouble his son was in. Adults in this book are either complicit in horrible activities or not working hard enough to keep the activities from happening. Once again, Robert Cormier delivers a message about struggling against a corrupt system in a pessimistic and chilling way.