Sunday, September 28, 2008

BB Review #1: The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

See that? #1? That implies a #2 will follow. Implies.

Because I have finally come to the realization that the books I'm trying to get published are controversial--and if they are ever published will likely be banned rather quickly by some parent groups--I decided I should make an effort to read and review banned books. If this sounds like an act of solidarity, it's not. Robert Cormier certainly doesn't need me to approve his books in order for him to continue to be, after more than 30 years, a beloved and successful author. And my readership of 3 won't make a difference in book sales anyway. I'm doing this review and hopefully others because I live in a country where it's my right to read whatever I want and then report on it, regardless of how small or large that audience is. God bless America.

My father opened a used bookstore more than 30 years ago. He was a high school history teacher in a public school at the time and had come to loathe not his job but the administration. When the administration wouldn't let him resign, he simply quit showing up to work so they had to fire him. Dad never looked back.

When I was in high school, I took a lot of pride in being the daughter of someone who could, in essence, say "screw it" to the entire "system," be it his administrators or local politicians or local religious leaders who thought my entire family was going to hell because our religion differed so drastically from theirs. Dad was a staunch conservative, a Reagan fan, and someone who firmly believed that banning books was destructive to society, not to mention just incredibly and ridiculously small-minded. I didn't always agree with his opinions, and agreed less and less as I grew older, but I was always proud of him for being willing to voice his opinion.

At the end of my junior year in high school, I made quick enemies of most of the junior and senior classes. I stood up in an assembly and spoke my mind when what I "should" have done was stay seated and let the status quo continue. The kids hated me, a number of the teachers weren't huge fans by the end of the meeting, and even one of my best friends slid away from me at the table as I spoke, trying to literally and figuratively distance herself from me. But I was George Givens's daughter, and I knew I had every right to stand up. So I did. I'm sure even now, 20 years later, most of my graduating class knows me as that girl who spoke her mind, trembling down to her toes as she did (though they may not have known that), and still find my sin unforgiveable.

So for many reasons--not all--I relate to Jerry in "The Chocolate War." Jerry is a freshman kid, just trying to make the football team and keep moving after the death of his mother the previous spring. But "The Vigil," an unofficial fraternity at his private Catholic school, has other plans for Jerry. His assignment is to refuse for 10 days to sell chocolates in the school's annual fundraiser. But after those 10 days are up, Jerry continues to refuse, thereby infuriating The Vigil as well as the teacher in charge of the sale. Things get really ugly and the story becomes a "Lord of the Flies" in blue blazers.

Throughout most of the story, Jerry is depicted as clearly the good guy. I say most because at the end of the book, he resorts to violence. Shame on him, of course. But I forgive him. He's 14, and the author doesn't let him win just because he literally climbs into the ring. That's not the message Cormier was trying to put across.

In the meantime, Archie (The Vigil assignment guy) and Brother Leon (the teacher) are clearly the bad guys. Their characterizations are so spot on they made me uncomfortable for the entire read because I knew they would wouldn't change. I was also uncomfortable because I knew Archie in high school, and I knew Brother Leon as well: the bullying student and a teacher who thought he was a bully but was nothing more than the student's pawn.

The message of the book seems to end up being "don't try to change things because you can't." This is what Jerry tries to tell Goober after the climactic fight scene. And that's incredibly depressing, right? But another message comes through as well, which is much more important and poignant. And that is this: if you don't back the guy who stands up for himself, you're a bully as well, even if you think you're just a bystander.

On Amazon, this book has, to date, 375 reviews, 44 of which are 1 stars. And the reason for most of those 1-star reviews is that the only message of this book is the first one. This book doesn't have a happy ending. But neither does high school for an awful lot of kids. In my opinion, what better message can we be giving our kids during those years than "stand up not just for yourself but for others as well"? I know it's what I tell my own children almost daily. And I hope to God, for my kids' sake, that other parents are telling their children the exact same thing--not just as a morality lesson for high school but for life.

And for those who may be curious, this book was banned for its use of profanity, sexual references, and violence.

Although, on a lighter note, I think some administrators and PTA moms banned it for this exchange:

"If it isn't chocolates, it's Christmas cards. If it isn't Christmas cards, it's soap.If it isn't soap, it's calendars. But you know what?"

"What?" Jerry asked, wanting to get back to his geography.

"I never though of just saying no. Like you did."

Considering the fact that we're entering only the 5th week of school and I've had 5 fundraisers sent home already, I'm all for starting a chocolate war myself.


Rebecca Ramsey said...

Amen to that! Who needs more candy or wrapping paper?

Sounds like an interesting book!
And you sound like someone I would have enjoyed knowing in school! It's hard to stand your ground. I would have been the quiet one behind you, silently cheering you on!

Paul A. Custer said...

I'd love to hear more about your HS speech sometime. I'll remember to ask when we visit... soon...