The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful
Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War is a story about the all too typical physical and psychological warfare that takes place in high schools, and which is perpetrated both by teenage bullies as well as their so-called “role models,” the adults/teachers who should know better, and who are trusted by parents to guide and protect the students. Jerry Renault, a new freshman, is the one person willing to take a stand against the corrupt teacher, Brother Leon, and his unspeakable minions, The Vigil – a group of power-crazed students who slither through the school’s underbelly, controlling everything, including the school’s fundraiser, selling chocolates. The main antagonist, Archie, a disturbed genius, happens to have a particular craving for chocolate – Hershey chocolate – which could be why the ultimate showdown between Archie and Jerry is battled out over Jerry’s refusal to sell chocolate like all the other boys. What is so sad about the book is that its resolution is horrifying, not just because of the actual events that occur, but because the reality of the situation is so true – it can and does happen in schools every day. With bullying such a recent talking point in the news media recently, perhaps this book hits even more intensely right now. One wonders why Jerry or his friend, Goober, did not just speak up – tell someone! And yet, even when asking that question, this reader knows that the reality is, very few people ever do speak up, for many reasons – kids do not want to be snitches, they want to fit in, they are scared of retribution, they wonder if anyone will believe them, etc. This is the real world, and it is the reality of Cormier’s The Chocolate War.
4 – Characters extraordinarily well developed.
Having read Cormier’s I Am The Cheese, there is no doubt that he is a master story-teller and a brilliant weaver of webs, so that little is as it seems, and the pages turn in thrilling fashion. The Chocolate War, though, allowed another of Cormier’s talents to shine through – characterization. Since, in his other work, there was really just the one character, it was not particularly necessary to wonder much about characters in general; however, in this book, there are many major and minor characters, including students in different years of high school (and of different “social status”), teachers, and parents. The main characters, Jerry and Archie, are most developed, but their supporting characters – Opie, Carter, Janza, and Goober are also distinguishable and well-thought. For instance, we see there are two leaders for The Vigils – Archie, the cunning and ruthless, and Carter, the physically dominant. It is clear that these two will be at odds, and it is easy to see, from the start, what their various methods (and the ultimate outcome) will probably be – because we get to know the characters. Opie, too, Archie’s sidekick, is always the one who talks back, but who never does anything. He puts Archie’s ideas down, calls him cruel, but never seeks resolution. Goober is a quitter and a push-over, from the get-go – he means well, but we know he will not be able to help Jerry when push comes to shove. The teachers, too – Brother Leon (the devious) and Brother Jacques (the good) are strong contrasts and are thus able to interact well with the various students though, in what seems to be typical fashion, the reader comes to realize that the bad will always triumph over the good.
3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.
What is great about Cormier’s prose is that it is written for the anticipated audience – in this case, high school boys. The language is simple, blunt, and rife with sexual innuendo and machismo. The dialogue is clear – it is not difficult to follow conversations, though a greater contrast between language of the teachers and other adults, versus the language of the teenagers could have enhanced the overall prose a bit. Still, different characters did have different mannerisms – Archie, Janza, and Jerry the most noticeably. The descriptions meshed well with the prose, the language and style were fluid and easy to read and follow – and the simple structure (short chapters, short sentences) was appropriate to the type of language employed for the type of audience likely to read the book. It was not stellar – but it works.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.
As I mentioned above, what resonates most for me in this book is how brutally honest it is – how realistic these types of situations are, and how disturbing and horrifying it is to think about that, and to see it happening in print (because we know it happens in real life). The elements of bullying – psychological and physical- are completely unacceptable, yet wholly believable. There is a distinct reprimand, unwritten but present in the subtext, that the absence of strong, decent role models – parents or teachers- is largely responsible for the type of brutality occurring at this school. Where are the engaged parents? Where are the concerned teachers with spines to do something? Is this a problem restricted to private schools? To religious schools? Or is it a problem in all high schools, everywhere? This is clearly war – and in war, there are so many victims, so few perpetrators, and even more bystanders (which perpetuates the problem), but that this war is taking place in a school, where the hope would be that all are protected- that makes the battle and the final outcome all the more distressing and infuriating, and real.
Suggested Reading For:
Age Level: 14+, Young Adult, Teen, Adult
Interest: Coming-of-Age, High School, Youth Psychology, Violence
“Archie disliked violence—most of his assignments were exercises in the psychological rather than the physical. That’s why he got away with so much. The Trinity brothers wanted peace at any price, quiet on the campus, no broken bones. Otherwise, the sky was the limit.”
“They tell you to do your thing but they don’t mean it. They don’t want you to do your thing, not unless it happens to be their thing, too. It’s a laugh, Goober, a fake. Don’t disturb the universe, Goober, no matter what the posters say.”