Synopses & Reviews
Twelve-year old Jason is accused of the brutal murder of a young girl. Is he innocent or guilty? The shocked town calls on an interrogator with a stellar reputation: he always gets a confession. The confrontation between Jason and his interrogator forms the chilling climax of this terrifying look at what can happen when the pursuit of justice becomes a personal crusade for victory at any cost.
A 12-year-old boy accused of a brutal murder faces an interrogator determined to get a confession in this gripping psychological thriller.
About the Author
obert Cormier (pronounced kor-MEER) lived all his life in Leominster, Massachusetts, a small town in the north-central part of the state, where he grew up as part of a close, warm community of French Canadian immigrants. His wife, Connie, also from Leominster, still lives in the house where they raised their three daughters and one son-all adults now. They never saw a reason to leave. “There are lots of untold stories right here on Main Street,” Cormier once said.
A newspaper reporter and columnist for 30 years (working for the Worcester Telegram and Gazette and the Fitchburg Sentinel), Cormier was often inspired by news stories. What makes his works unique is his ability to make evil behavior understandable, though, of course, still evil. “Im very much interested in intimidation,” he told an interviewer from School Library Journal. “And the way people manipulate other people. And the obvious abuse of authority.” All of these themes are evident in his young adult classic and best-known book, The Chocolate War. A 15-year-old fan of his said, “You always write from inside the person.”
Cormier traveled the world, from Australia (where he felt particularly thrilled by putting his hand in the Indian Ocean) and New Zealand to most of the countries in Europe, speaking at schools, colleges, and universities and to teacher and librarian associations. He visited nearly every state in the nation. While Cormier loved to travel, he said many times that he also loved returning to his home in Leominster.
Cormier was a practicing Catholic and attended parochial school, where in seventh grade, one of his teachers discovered his ability to write. But he said he had always wanted to be a writer: “I cant remember a time when I wasnt trying to get something down on paper.” His first poems were published in the Leominster Daily Enterprise, and his first professional publication occurred while he was a freshman at Fitchburg State College. His professor, Florence Conlon, sent his short story, without his knowledge, to The Sign, a national Catholic magazine. The story, titled “The Little Things That Count,” sold for $75.
Cormiers first work as a writer was at radio station WTAG in Worcester, MA, where he wrote scripts and commercials from 1946 to 1948. In 1948, he began his award-winning career as a newspaperman with the Worcester Telegram, first in its Leominster office and later in its Fitchburg office. He wrote a weekly human-interest column, “A Story from the Country,” for that newspaper.
In 1955, Cormier joined the staff of the Fitchburg Sentinel, which later became the Fitchburg-Leominster Sentinel and Enterprise, as the city hall and political reporter. He later served as wire and associate editor and wrote a popular twice-weekly column under the pseudonym John Fitch IV. The column received the national K.R. Thomason Award in 1974 as the best human-interest column written that year. That same year, he was honored by the New England Associated Press Association for having written the best news story under pressure of deadline. He left newspaper work in 1978 to devote all his time to writing.
Robert Cormiers first novel, Now and at the Hour, was published in 1960. Inspired by his fathers death, the novel drew critical acclaim and was featured by Time magazine for five weeks on its “Recommended Reading” list. It was followed in 1963 by A Little Raw on Monday Mornings and in 1965 by Take Me Where the Good Times Are, also critically acclaimed. The author was hailed by the Newark Advocate as being “in the first rank of American Catholic novelists.”
In 1974, Cormier published The Chocolate War, the novel that is still a bestseller a quarter century after its publication. Instantly acclaimed, it was also the object of censorship attempts because of its uncompromising realism. In a front-page review in a special childrens issue of The New York Times Book Review, it was described as “masterfully structured and rich in theme,” and it went on to win countless awards and honors, was taught in schools and colleges throughout the world, and was translated into more than a dozen languages. I Am the Cheese followed in 1977 and After the First Death in 1979.
These three books established Cormier as a master of the young adult novel. In 1991, the Young Adult Services Division of the American Library Association presented him with the Margaret A. Edwards Award, citing the trio of books as “brilliantly crafted and troubling novels that have achieved the status of classics in young adult literature.”
In 1982, Cormier was honored by the National Council of Teachers of English and its Adolescent Literature Assembly (ALAN) for his “significant contribution to the field of adolescent literature” and for his “innovative creativity.”
8 Plus 1, an anthology of short stories that have appeared in such publications as the Saturday Evening Post, The Sign, and Redbook, was published in 1980. In later years, many of the stories in the collection, notably “The Moustache,” “President Cleveland, Where Are You?” and “Mine on Thursdays,” appeared in anthologies and school textbooks. The collection also received the World of Reading Readers Choice Award, sponsored by Silver Burdett & Ginn, especially notable because young readers voted for Cormier to receive the prize.
I Have Words to Spend, a collection of his newspaper and magazine columns, was published in 1991, assembled and edited by his wife, Connie.
Robert Cormiers other novels include The Bumblebee Flies Anyway, 1983; Beyond the Chocolate War, 1985; Fade, 1988; Other Bells for Us to Ring, 1990; We All Fall Down, 1991; Tunes for Bears to Dance To, 1992; In the Middle of the Night, 1995; Tenderness, 1997; Heroes, 1998; and Frenchtown Summer, 1999. This novel won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Young Adult Fiction in April 2000. All his novels have won critical praise and honors.
In the Middle of the Night and Tenderness were short-listed for the Carnegie Medal in England, and Heroes received a “Highly Commended” citation for that same award, unique honors because the Carnegie is traditionally awarded to a British book.
Cormier's novels have frequently come under attack by censorship groups because they are uncompromising in their depictions of the problems young people face each day in a turbulent world. Teachers and librarians have been quick to point out that his novels are eminently teachable, valuable, and moral. His novels are taught in hundreds of schools and in adolescent literature courses in colleges and universities.
Though many of his books are described as written for young adults, in fact people of all ages read and enjoy Cormiers work. His themes of the ordinariness of evil and what happens when good people stand by and do nothing are treated seriously, and he never provides the easy comfort of a happy ending. Cormiers gripping stories explore some of the darker corners of the human psyche, but always with a moral focus and a probing intelligence that compel readers to examine their own feelings and ethical beliefs.
In an interview last year, Cormier was asked if he had accomplished what he set out to do at the beginning of his writing career. He answered with characteristic humility: “Oh, yes. My dream was to be known as a writer and to be able to produce at least one book that would be read by people. That dream came true with the publication of my first novel-and all the rest has been a sweet bonus. All Ive ever wanted to do, really, was to write.” That writing has left the world a legacy of wonderful books, a body of work that will endure.
Reading Group Guide
In Robert Cormiers unforgettable novels, an individual often stands alone, fighting for what is right-or just to survive-against powerful, sinister, and sometimes evil people. His books look unflinchingly at tyranny and the abuse of power, at treachery and betrayal, at guilt and forgiveness, love and hate, and the corruption of innocence. Cormiers gripping stories explore some of the darker corners of the human psyche, but always with a moral focus and a probing intelligence that compel readers to examine their own feelings and ethical beliefs.
The questions that follow are intended to spur discussion and to provoke thoughtful readers to contemplate some of the issues of identity, character, emotion, and morality that make Cormiers books so compelling
1. The title of this novel is drawn from two lines of a poem by William Butler Yeats, “The Circus Animals Desertion.” How does the phrase “the rag and bone shop” (i.e., a place where the worst castoffs end up) sum up the essence of this novel? What is Trent saying about his life when he quotes these two lines? (p. 71) And when he shifts into the final phase of the interrogation and remembers the first line? (p. 123)
2. After Jason vanquishes the bully Bobo Kelton with one blow, “he didnt think hed ever hit anybody again but he had proved himself capable of doing it.” (p. 26) How does the second part of that sentence become a weapon later for Trent? Why does hitting Bobo mean an end to Jasons tears? Is the principal right when he says violence never solves anything?
3. Trents deceased wife Lottie had told him, “You are what you do.” Why, coming from her, is this an accusation? How, coming from Trent himself at the end, is it a death sentence? Is it true that people are what they do, not only in their jobs, but in the sum total of all their acts, good and bad? Can this be changed?
4. Sarah Downes (and also Carl Seaton) compares Trent to a priest. How are Trents interrogations like what a priest does in the confessional? But what crucial differences in Trents intentions and capabilities make the outcome for his “perps” entirely different?
5. The exact definitions of the following words are important to understanding the ideas that underlie Cormiers themes of guilt, innocence, and forgiveness. Look up admission, confession, absolution, indictment, and remission and notice how their definitions overlap and where they differ. How are these terms central to this story?
6. What are the heavy external and internal pressures on Trent to get a confession from Jason? In real life, is it possible that this kind of pressure may result in hasty convictions of innocent people? Have you heard of any such cases? What might be done to keep this from happening?
7. Trent says he has “rules and regulations” for interrogations. What are some of these strategies that relate to the preliminary scenario, the physical set-up of the room, and the subtleties of psychological intimidation? How do these interrogation techniques affect the suspect?
8. “Thrust and parry” is a phrase Trent uses to describe the interrogation. From what sport does this expression come, and what image does it evoke? As the questioning proceeds, Trent suddenly knows irrevocably that Jason is innocent. How does he talk himself out of acting on this realization? What would have been the consequences if he had allowed himself to follow his conscience?
9. A stunning plot twist takes us by surprise when Trent emerges into the hall after he has tricked Jason into “confessing” and is told by Sarah Downes that Brad Bartlett has just admitted to killing his sister. Suddenly everything is different. What are the present and future implications of this new situation for Trent? For Jason? What emotions might they each have felt at this moment that they didnt feel?
10. In the end, Jasons view of reality has been badly twisted by Trents perverse questioning and his own false confession. What does he tell himself to justify his plan to kill Bobo? How will this action restore his self-respect? If he carries through on this murder, who will then need to confess?
Discussion questions prepared by Patty Campbell, author of Presenting Robert Cormier (Twayne, Dell) and 1989 winner of the ALAs Grolier Foundation Award for distinguished service to young adults and libraries.