The Chocolate War
by Robert Cormier
Reviewed by Chris Bolton
It's always risky to revisit a childhood favorite. Your once-favorite movie that ran every afternoon on HBO is likely to turn out, in adulthood, to be horribly written, abysmally acted, and in general, an embarrassment (I'm looking at you, Goonies). Let's not touch music and fashions. Even books can age poorly, or turn out to be not quite the towering achievement you remember them to be.
Robert Cormier's young adult classic The Chocolate War was published the year I was born. I read it in my early teens, when I was only beginning to resent authority and struggling to find my own voice, and it connected with me in a way I can only describe as profound; I spent many of my teen years wishing my school had a chocolate sale just so I could rebel against it.
Approaching it again after so many years, I wondered how relevant its themes, characters, and details could be to me. Would it seem like an interesting time capsule of a bygone period, or simply overwrought adolescent angst? It has certainly been the case more than once that what felt so "authentic" and "real" to me as a teenager has turned out to be pretty damn cheesy with a little adulthood under my belt.
Fortunately, The Chocolate War didn't disappoint. In some ways, in fact, it was better than I recalled.
The aspect of the book that I focused on most intensely the first time — Jerry Renault, standing alone against the school even when there's no earthly reason to — remained just as strong. But all these years later, I noticed the many other well-drawn characters, specifically the way Cormier depicts their own weaknesses and fears, so that even the notorious Archie Costello feels not so very different from Jerry.
The novel is set at Trinity, a private high school whose continued survival depends heavily on the money from its annual chocolate sale. Each year the students are allotted a certain number of boxes to sell — although, it is stressed in a way that feels familiarly sincere and deceptive at the same time, the sale is entirely voluntary and no student has to participate. The Assistant Headmaster, Brother Leon, seems particularly gung-ho about this year's sale, pushing twice the usual quota, leading to speculation that Leon is using the sales to assure his promotion to Headmaster (other theories include the notion that Leon has done something shady with school funds and is using the sale to cover it up).
Trinity is also ruled by a shadowy student organization called The Vigils. The group — which is never mentioned by name, even by the faculty — hands out seemingly random assignments to students, along the lines of unscrewing all the desks and chairs in a classroom. In general, these pranks, dreamed up by Archie Costello, who is loathed by his fellow Vigils even as they admire his ingenuity, are considered perfectly harmless — unless you happen to be a victim. (Sometimes it's tough to determine who's the greater victim: the target of the assignment or the student who's forced to carry it out.)
Enter Jerry Renault, a freshman whose mother recently died and whose father is disappearing into a waking death, working all day at his menial job and coming home to sleep his life away on the couch. (Jerry's resentment of his father's wasted life of punching a clock and sleeping until the next work day will perhaps resonate a little too closely with some adult readers. And maybe that's a good thing.)
As Jerry struggles on the football team, attempts to make contact with the cute girl at his bus stop who smiles at him but never says much, and wrestles with his own sense of identity, he's given his first assignment by The Vigils: refuse to sell the chocolates. Naturally, this puts him in direct conflict with Brother Leon, who can't force him to sell the chocolates, but certainly isn't happy about his lack of participation. As the sale drags on and the tension mounts from the faculty and student body alike, Jerry's resentment toward all authority figures — even covert ones like The Vigils — leads him to make a fateful decision and stand up for himself against everyone.
The Chocolate War is number three on the American Library Association's list of the 100 most banned/challenged books — it even beat the gay penguins! — proving that the story retains its dangerous edge after these many years. As Bush and his cronies slink back to their caves and the country is poised for a slow, difficult, yet inevitable renewal with the Obama administration, the story feels almost too timely — how many brave individuals in the past eight years have fought to take a stand against the corruption of our leaders, even when the tide of patriotic fervor and intimidating rhetoric pounded against them?
(In fairness, the book also has a tremendous number of references to masturbation, which might offend those who were never teenage boys, or have forgotten what it's like to be one. It does, however, indicate that adolescent boys haven't really changed all that much between 1974 and 2009.)
In not only his rebellion but also the futility of his actions, Jerry's story reminded me in many ways of Cool Hand Luke, though Cormier makes Jerry into less of a Christ-like figure. It's easy to cheer for him, never more so than in the novel's brutal and riveting climax, and inevitably the reader will wonder what s/he might have done in Jerry's situation. This aspect made him readily identifiable to me as a teenager, and is every bit as effective in adulthood. I also found myself thinking of Archie Costello, no less credible and fascinating a character in his ruthlessness and cowardice, and wondering what cabinet position he might have held in the Bush White House.
The Chocolate War doesn't offer easy lessons or a tidy resolution. Cormier has no desire to delude his readership into thinking that standing up for oneself doesn't have consequences. In fact, he seems to be saying, the punishment is often dire, the compensation minimal, and the only thing you can count on is more hardship. Rereading the book in adulthood, this message resonates most truthfully and powerfully: in the end, being true to yourself is its own reward — and, often, the only reward.
Perhaps that is the scariest notion of all, and the element that makes The Chocolate War so threatening to those who would censor it. It is also, ultimately, what makes the book truly timeless.
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Chris Bolton's days are spent providing images and content for Powells.com. When night falls, he writes the web-comic Smash with his artist brother, Kyle. He wrote and directed a web-series called Wage Slaves, which is in post-production, and his short story set in Powell's City of Books will appear this summer in Portland Noir from Akashic Press.