Book Review | The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

the-chocolate-war-book-review-paiges-pagesTITLE: The Chocolate War
AUTHOR: Robert Cormier
PUBLISHER: Penguin Books
RELEASE DATE: 1974
GENRE: Young Adult Fiction
PAGE COUNT: 267


Think it’s easy to tell the ‘good guys’ from the ‘bad guys’?  If you turn a blind eye to a bad system, are you part of the problem?  The Chocolate War is a nail-biting adventure into a world of psychological warfare and anarchy… high school.

Jerry Renault is the new kid at Trinity, an all boys Catholic high school.  Archie Costello and his secret society, the Vigils, exercise a reign of fear over the school.  When Brother Leon enlists Archie’s help to make the annual fundraising chocolate sale is a success, it looks like they’ve got it in the bag.  That is until Jerry disobeys the Vigils by refusing to sell chocolates.  Soon enough, Trinity is a war zone divided by chocolate.

The world was made up of two kinds of people – those who were victims and those who victimised – page 108

Although Jerry may look like the “hero”, con-kid and mastermind of the Vigils, Archie, is really the main character.  Archie is always one step ahead of his peers, wielding his intellect to manipulate disciples and victims alike.  He is famous for his twisted “assignments”, which remind the school who’s truly in charge.  The mysterious threat of the Black Box hangs over his head like a curse.

The plot is constantly thrumming with tension.  The point of view jumps between Trinity’s power players including Jerry, The Goober, and Archie’s henchman Obie.  This dynamic use of P.o.V. helps us to grasp Trinity’s complicated politics – its web of blackmail and psychological abuse.  However, for a book with such a strong plot, the characters and the writing style are astonishingly rich.  I’m always disappointed when a YA book gets so preoccupied with action that it forgets to invest in strong style.  The Chocolate War is an engrossing read because not only is the plot complex, but the characters and imagery are fresh and vivid in the mind’s eye.

It had been funny and terrible at the same time, watching Leon call the roll and waiting for his name to be called, and finally his name blazing in the air and the defiant NO.  The teacher might have been able to carry off his act successfully, except for his eyes.  His eyes gave him away.  His face was always under control but his eyes showed vulnerability, gave Jerry a glimpse into the hell that was burning inside the teacher – page 124

The Chocolate War is all about power, especially power abused by corrupt authority figures or bullies.  Even if you’re an adult reader, this theme will ring true in countless real-world contexts.  At Trinity, Jerry discovers that anything going against the Vigils’ agenda will be stomped out, like a bug under a boot.  I can see why this book would be amazing as a high school text – The Chocolate War challenges young people to look at their own role within a social system or institution.  Who benefits from a cookie cutter culture?  Do I dare disturb the universe?  And a question that all readers, young and old, should ask of the authority figures in their lives: How is the position of power being used?  I can see why this book has been banned so often – it threatens to raise a generation of young people who can see through façades and make up their own minds about the world.

Do I dare disturb the universe?  Yes, I do, I do.  I think.  Jerry suddenly understood the poster – the solitary man on the beach standing upright and alone and unafraid, posed at the moment of making himself heard and known in the world, the universe – page 201

Another theme I thought worked well was the binary of humans and animals, the word “animal” used by Archie to alienate and dominate his victims.  By the end, however, how many of the characters have retained their humanity?  The loss of morality of both leaders and followers raises questions.  Are the Vigils solely responsible?  Or are the people who kept their heads down to avoid their wrath equally to blame?

Once hooked by the politics of Trinity, I couldn’t put this book down.  Packed full of unforgettable characters and enthralling imagery, it is a controversial modern classic.

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