The Chocolate War

chocolatewarcoverTitle: The Chocolate War
Author: Robert Cormier
Publication Year: 1974
Pages: 180
Genre: Fiction, Young Adult
Count for Year: 57

How I discovered

I believe I heard of the book years ago when I was in high school, but I was in a section that didn’t read it. Since then, I had heard of it through this poster of Books Challenged or Banned in 2007-08, with seven out of my eight scheduled selections for my own Personal Banned Books Challenge from the list. [1]

The setup

Stunned by his mother’s recent death and appalled by his father’s sleepwalking through life, Jerry Renault ponders the poster in his locker: Do I dare disturb the universe?

Part of his universe is Archie Costello, leader of a secret high school society– the Vigils– and master of intimidation. Archie himself is intimidated by a teacher, Brother Leon, into having the Vigils spearhead the annual fund-raising event, a chocolate sale. When Jerry refuses to sell the chocolates, he indeed disturbs the universe– and becomes a hero. But his defiance is a threat to the Vigils, Brother Leon, and the school, for a final unforgettable showdown. Archie’s brutal cunning turns Jerry from outcast to victim leaving him vulnerable and alone.

— from the bookjacket

“Brutal” is the key word when describing Robert Cormier’s now classic young adult novel, The Chocolate War. It starts with the lead character, Jerry Renault, being pummeled by teammates during a football practice and ends with him being pummeled in a boxing match by a bully. In between, the fury of fists comes a flurry of words and silence on the other end of a telephone line– which can be, and is in this context, just as brutal — and then a fury of more fists and a flurry of more words before the final showdown.

Incredibly, the brutality stems from Jerry’s refusal to participate in a school chocolate sale, events inspired by Cormier’s own son, Peter, refusing not to sell chocolates during a sale at his school. In this case, as part of an assignment for a gang at his school, Jerry is supposed to refuse not to sell the chocolates as part of a school chocolate sale for 10 school days. But then the unthinkable happens, after the 10 days, he says:

“No.”

The Goober felt as if his eyes were the lens for a television camera in one of those documentaries. He swung around in Jerry’s direction and saw his friend’s face, white, mouth half-open, his arms dangling at his sides. And then he swiveled to look at Brother Leon and saw the shock on the teacher’s face, his mouth forming an oval of astonishment. It seemed almost as if Jerry and the teacher were reflections in a mirror.

Finally Brother Leon looked down.

“Renault,” he said again, his voice like a whip.

“No. I’m not going to sell the chocolates.”

Cities fell. Earth opened. Planets titled. Stars plummeted. And the awful silence.

As I read this book, I’ll be honest I felt the knots tying in my stomach as I did when I was in elementary school and teased mercilessly by The Bully at our school, and also at one point demeaned unjustly by a cruel teacher like Leon, which I think of course is part of the point of this book.  You are supposed to feel those knots you might have felt being bullied by others or being ridiculed by a cruel teacher.

In the end, Cormier doesn’t help loosen those knots. You still feel as tightly bound and tense at the end as you did at the beginning. Like Jerry, you’ve been pummeled, but you’re still alive, if just barely.

My final analysis: 4/5. A classic, but somehow not quite as good as I thought it would be. I guess, after reading The Outsider, which I thought was brilliant, I thought this one just fell a bit short in its ending.

[1] The book was challenged four times, according to the American Library Association poster, and removed from one school to be returned later. The best challenge was this one at the NorthridgeSchool District in Johnstown, Ohio (2007) because “if these books were a movie, they would be rated R, why should we be encouraging them to read these books?” As if kids nowadays don’t see Rated R movies before they’re 17? Not to mention in comparison to many movies, I don’t think this book is that bad.

6 responses to “The Chocolate War

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  3. towerofbooks

    This is actually one of my favorite books, and part of it was because of the ending. Even though it ended the way it did, I felt that it conveyed the message that we need to stand up against bullying.

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  5. Can’t say this is really my type of book but the title drew me in. 😉

    Thanks for sharing about it.

  6. My main memory of this book is that I absolutely hated it, when I had to read it for upper school. I do think, however that it was a lot more to do with the fact I was having to spend time reading a book I just didn’t enjoy when I had a stack of books I loved reading that had to wait until I finished this one.

    This is the only assigned school book I can remember having this reaction to, and has probably spoiled it for me to this day, as out of any pile of books, it’d be among the last to be chosen, a status, which to be honest it probably does not deserve.