Title: The Chocolate War
Author: Robert Cormier
Publication Date: 1974
Price: $8.99 (paperback)
Interest Age: 12 and up
Lexile Level: 820
Annotation: Devastating consequences await freshman Jerry Renault when he refuses to participate in the school’s annual chocolate fundraising drive.
Plot Summary: As Jerry Renault starts his first year at Trinity, an all boys Catholic School, he is coping with depressing feelings and existential questions left after his mother’s death. He quickly ends up on the football team making friends with a fellow teammate Goober. At the same time, Brother Leon, the vice-principal of Trinity, extends his ambitions by committing the school to selling twice the amount it did the previous year. To meet this goal, Brother Leon meets with Archie Costello, the leader of the Vigils – a cruel secret society of student pranksters, to garner his support. While Archie promises Brother Leon the Vigils support, he has his own plan of alternately supporting and betraying the sale using freshman assignments to do so. The first part is using Jerry to decline selling chocolates for ten days. After the ten days, Jerry continues to pass on selling chocolate causing a break with both the Vigils and Brother Leon. At first, the school rallies behind Jerry calling his actions heroic for standing up to the school and the Vigils which threatens their power. Archie and the Vigils put their full force behind the sale creating a narrative that sets up Jerry to be harassed and bullied culminating in a showdown boxing match where students decide the blows from a randomized lottery system. Midway through the fight, a teacher shuts down the lights and Jerry is brutalized. While Archie is fingered as the mastermind, Brother Leon intervenes on his behalf and they get away with their cruelty.
Critical Evaluation: Stripped down, The Chocolate War is a well-paced story about conformity and corruption. When Jerry Renault makes decisions that go against the grain, both the vice principal and the secret society manipulate students into a cruel and harsh mob. Cormier captures the adolescent period well – a time where the acceptance of peers is crucial. A period where most teens can easily relate to. Additionally, the reality of high school in all its’ ridiculousness and hell is captured throughout the novel. For example, the cruelty and beatings of Jerry over a simple no. The easy passing of judgment and the bullying of those who go against the norm. What struck me is Cromier’s uncompromising portrayal of human nature. Jerry, Archie Costello, Brother Leon characterization were superbly done and Cromier was not afraid to push the envelope. Archie and Brother’s ambition and human cruelty, Goober’s actions and choices, Jerry’s stubborn tenacity all feel real and true to life. Besides the human cruelty of the characters, Cromier’s ending of The Chocolate War follows a similar pattern to his characterization – very tell it like it is. The only failing of this novel is the lack of nuanced female characterization. Most mentions of women at all in tied to the sexual ponderings of various characters and the way they are presented is fairly disgusting.
Author Bio: Robert Cormier (1925-2000) changed the face of young adult literature over the course of his illustrious career. His many books include “The Chocolate War,” “I Am the Cheese,” “Fade,” “Tenderness,” “After the First Death,” “Heroes,” “Frenchtown Summer,” and “The Rag and Bone Shop.” In 1991 he received the Margaret A. Edwards Award, honoring his lifetime contribution to writing for teens. (from Ingram)
Tie to Curriculum Units: N/A
Booktalking Ideas: Secret Societies, Bullying, Peer Pressure, YA Classic
Challenge Issues: The Chocolate War is a book frequently on the frequently challenged/banned books list for the number of times it has been challenged in schools and libraries for the portrayal of mob mentality in schools and the sexual pondering of characters. To defend this title, I would mention the various awards it won during the book’s year of publication including ALA Best Books of the Year, NYT Notable Books of the Year, SLJ Book of the Award and the various review sources praise it got. Additionally, it’s status as a YA classic and the important theme present make this a must for collections.