Monday, September 26, 2011

The Chocolate War - Robert Cormier

This review of The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier is part of our 2nd Annual Banned Books Week.  On all the banned/challenged books lists I've come across, this novel is one of the books that I saw most frequently.  According to Dangerous Books, The Chocolate War was banned "due [to] heavy use of profanity, sexual references, and references to bribery, distortion, and physical violence within the novel" and remains number five of the top 50 banned books. 

Summary:  Jerry Renault is pondering the question on the poster in his locker:  Do I dare disturb the universe?

Refusing to sell chocolates in the annual Trinity School fund-raiser may not seem like a radical thing to do.  But when Jerry challenges a secret school society called The Vigils, his defiant act turns into an all-out war.  Now the only question is:  Who will survive?  (Summary from book - Image from www.w3.xs.edu.ph)

My Review:  Jerry Renault isn’t anyone special. He just wants to make a difference, to be somebody, and to make his own decisions -- not be pushed around by his sadistic teacher or the Vigils, the bullies that populate his private school. When Jerry refuses to sell chocolates for the school fundraiser, his dissension has disastrous results. As other students begin to follow suit, chocolate sales fall, and the Vigils influence is threatened, Jerry suddenly becomes a target for harassment and aggression from all sides. 

On the surface, this book is offensive. It has all the things it is accused of having (see above), including a great deal more profanity than one would expect in a book aimed at children and young adults. There are a few sexual references, the kind you would expect to hear from teenage boys, and also an increasing amount of physical violence as the book progresses. However, closer examination (like actually reading the book, as opposed to just counting the swear words) reveals a deeper and much more meaningful message.

The Chocolate War is about standing up for what is right, regardless of whether it is popular. At first, Jerry goes along with The Vigils mandate that he refuse to sell chocolates, but he has a change of heart when he realizes that he no longer wants to just “go along” with things. He decides the he is willing to upset the status quo, regardless of the consequences, and not let others dictate his own decisions. There are several other characters in the book that are vile (and perfectly written) antagonists, and others who when faced with a similar decision, choose the easier path. The end of the book is fairly disturbing, as Jerry is given the choice to walk away, or stand and fight. I can't pretend to understand all of the meaning that can be gleaned from the final scenes of this book, but I do know that the end is not a neatly tied bow.  It’s messy food for thought that would make for an interesting classroom or book club discussion. 

Despite the profanity and sexual comments, I wouldn’t object to my daughter reading this book when she gets older, if it was assigned in school. Don’t get me wrong, we’d definitely have to talk about what she was reading, but I think the themes (standing up to peer pressure, the fickleness of popular opinion, the psychology of human interaction and bullying, the dangers of a mob mentality, etc.) offer the opportunity for valuable, relevant discussion, especially within a group of young adults. Any parent whose child is assigned this book would do well to read it with them, and at least attempt to see the real heart of this book before crying foul.

Side note: I do wonder if there are other books in print that offer a similar heartening message without the profanity, sexuality, and violence. Have you read any? Feel free and comment to let us know!

My Rating: 3.75 Stars

For the sensitive reader:  A great deal of profanity, some discussion of sexual matters, and an increasing amount of  physical violence.

Sum it up: A book that is both offensive and uplifting.  Is that even possible?  It would seem so.

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