The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

DATE FINISHED: August 9th, 2012 

RATED: **** (4.5)

SYNOPSIS:  Every year, Trinity High School raises money by recruiting its students to sell chocolates. One year, Jerry Renault says ‘no’. At first, this is on instruction, the result of a unique kind of bullying instigated by a select clique known as The Vigils; but soon Jerry is making a stand of his own – although he is not quite sure why. Warped Vigil mastermind Archie is behind Jerry’s initial refusal, but his power is challenged when Jerry refuses to stand down. Can Archie regain control of the situation; and if not, will Jerry have proven or achieved anything? A war that is much bigger, and much more explosive than a box of chocolates has begun…

THOUGHTS:  The Chocolate War could easily have been a straightforward exercise examining the fears and humiliation of peer pressure, bullying and conformity with a side-order of positivity and the championing of self-esteem, self-belief, self-awareness (etc), but Cormier goes much further in this chillingly human story, full of challenging ideas. There is a bleakness in the inherent corruption of the school and the lost innocence, or contamination of those who encounter it for the first time. Awareness dawns that life is not always happily ever after, and standing up for something that matters will not change the world – although it may change your perspective or perception of it. This novel asks more questions than it answers.

Do I dare disturb the universe?

Cormier has an uncanny way of getting under his characters’ skin, in prose that is clear and accessible, without excess. A ‘simple’ school story about a boy dealing with the loss of his mother to cancer becomes a complex question of good versus evil. The refusal to offer pat solutions makes this young adult novel stand out from the crowd.

FOLLOWING ON:  There is a sequel, Beyond the Chocolate War.  Some equally strong reads about conformity (which should equally not be confined to a young adult readership) are The Runner by Cynthia Voigt, and Rumblefish by S.E.Hinton.

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