Thursday, November 22, 2012

Book Review: The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier (2000 edition, Random House)

Recommended  for ages 14+

Still reeling from his mother’s death, Jeremy Renault starts high school at the private Trinity School as a freshmen. Trinity’s secret society, The Vigils, targets him for an “assignment” – to refuse to sell chocolates for the first week of the school chocolate sale. After the week is up, Jeremy continues to refuse to sell the chocolates, taking a stand for himself. The Vigils, quietly sanctioned by the school’s principal, Brother Leon, begins a campaign of bullying and harassment in order to save face and force Jeremy to comply. In 1985, Cormier published a sequel, Beyond the Chocolate War.
The Chocolate War is an often brutal book in its depictions of psychological and physical abuse. Jeremy and his friends endure their assignments from the vigils and all the guilt that comes with the consequences of their actions. Archie, the Vigil who creates the “assignments”, is unsettling in his cold ability to dole out punishment to students and antagonistic to his teachers. We never get any reasons why he is the way he is – he simply is. The most fleshed out character here is Jeremy, because he is the focal point of the book. His grief over his mother, his frustration with his distant father, and the derision he endures day after day in school can be difficult to read, but Cormier creates a respect for Jeremy by his sheer force of will. Although originally published in 1974, the book’s themes are just as relevant today.
The Chocolate War was number three on the American Library Association’s (ALA) Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books in 2000-2009; it  has also been designated as an ALA Best Book for Young Adults; School Library Journal Best Book of the Year; Kirkus Reviews Choice; New York Times Outstanding Book of the Year; and received a Margaret A. Edwards Award.
Robert Cormier was a YA author and journalist who preferred to write about the harsher realities in life, as seen in his more famous books, The Chocolate War, I Am the Cheese,and The Cheese Stands Alone. He passed away in 2000; the Internet Public Library has a link to a biography and interview with him from 1996. 

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