Robert Cormier's novel about a boys' school in New England is a good-versus-evil story, and ultimately evil wins out. Rated as the fourth most challenged book from 1990 to 2000 by the American Library Association, the most challenged book of 1998 and as recent as 2002, the third most challenged for it offensive language and unsuitability to the age group (grades 7-9). Now you probably want to go read it, don't you?
This story is set in a Catholic boys' school in New England, probably in the late sixties or early seventies. The main characters in the book are Jerry Renault, a fourteen-year-old freshman who desperately wants to make the football team and for girls to like him, Archie, the leader of a school gang called the Vigils and Brother Leon, an ambitious, cruel, cunning teacher. Archie, along with his sidekicks, deals out "assignments" to unwilling but helpless students who are powerless against the bullying. The "assignments" are typically psychological and not violent. The first assignment in the book is given to The Goober, Jerry's friend. He must stay up all night and loosen all of the screws in a classroom, causing pandemonium when class begins the following day and everything crashes down.
When the time comes for the annual chocolate fundraiser, Brother Leon has overextended the schools finances and purchased 20,000 boxes of chocolate to sell. Feeling the pressure, he secretly enlists the help of the Vigils to make the sale successful. Archie agrees that his gang will help to motivate the students. At the same time, they single out Jerry. His "assignment" is to tell Brother Leon that he refuses to sell the chocolate. He must say "No." for ten consecutive days. To everyone's surprise, when the ten days are over, he continues to refuse to sell the candy. He sticks to his guns and will not sell the chocolate. For a little while, Jerry is seen as a hero and other students are affected by his defiance. Others stop selling as well and sales drop off. The tide turns when the Vigils take over and everyone again starts to sell the chocolate. The student body begin to ignore and sneer at Jerry. At this point in the book, violence comes into play. Jerry is beat up by Janza, a friend of the Vigils and other hired bullies. He gets crank phone calls at his home repeatedly and his shoes and locker poster (with the signifigant statement "Do I dare disturb the universe?") are slashed.
When all of the boxes of chocolate are sold, save for the fifty that Jerry was responsible to sell, Archie organizes a boxing match between Jerry and Janza in front of the school body. It is in pep rally fashion and no teachers or authority figures are present (although Brother Leon is watching from a safe distance.) Archie has set it up so that the audience can pay a dollar for a chance to write down what type of punch they want to see thrown and by whom, in a raffle style. Predictably, things get out of control and Jerry goes down. Finally, a teacher is notified and the fight is stopped, but it is too late for Jerry. He is taken off in an ambulance. Whether he lives or dies is unclear. This sentence, not spoken, but a thought in Jerrys head makes the reader believe he will die: "Take it easy Goober, it doesnt even hurt anymore. See? I'm floating, floating above the pain. Just remember what I told you. It's important. Otherwise, they murder you" (p. 87.)
The theme of the story is dreary. The message of the book seems to be that you can't buck the system, so don't even try. The book, full of power struggles and conformity offers a bleak view of the world through a teenage viewpoint. If you don't conform, if you disturb the universe, you will pay for it. There is symbolism and foreshadowing in the beginning of the book when Obie, a Vigil member, sees the goal post shadows as empty crucifixes. And Jerry is the one sacrificed.
Cormier, Robert. 1974. THE CHOCOATE WAR. New York: Dell Publishing. ISBN: 0-440-94459-7.
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