Saturday 21 May 2011

The Chocolate War

The Chocolate War was originally published in 1974. It was controversial then and remains controversial now, being the #3 most challenged book in America between 2000 and 2009. Which is quite a feat given that a book called The Joy of Gay Sex is only at #78. There must be a whole lot of subversive stuff in here. Right? Well, not really. There are fair amounts of swearing, references to masturbation and the unpure thoughts of teenage boys, but these certainly aren't the focus. 

In essence, The Chocolate War is a book about high school bullying. Jerry Renault is the new boy in school. His mother has recently died, and he is living with his grieving pharmacist father in a small flat. Jerry is a freshman in high school, and he dares to disturb the universe. Jerry's school is a Catholic high school, run formally by the menacing Brother Leon, and informally by The Vigils, a group of senior students who organise their bullying of the younger students. While I was reading the book, I didn't get much of a sense of menace from The Vigils. I thought perhaps the name was dated, now I wonder if it was meant to be a play on vigilante and I just didn't get it. I thought more of the keeping watch kind of Vigil, and it just didn't sound threatening. 

Brother Leon is in a spot of bother, he needs to offload $20,000 boxes of chocolates for $2 each. Apparently this was quite pricey back in 1974. Sadly, it is never fully explained why he needs money so urgently, I was hoping it was to pay off his gambling debts or something. He enlists the help of The Vigils, to get the boys into line and selling lots of chocolates. Jerry disturbs the universe and doesn't plan to sell any chocolates. The book was apparently inspired by his son refusing to sell fundraising candy for his own school. 

I wonder if this book has the worst ever selection of cover art?

The Chocolate War is written in the voice of an omniscient third person narrator. A voice which can be annoying at times. Early on, a lot of emphasis is placed on the inner turmoil of Archie, the self-styled leader of The Vigils, who thinks up ever more demeaning humiliations for the kids. How he has to deal with "the agonies of it all" and "the nights he's tossed and turned" thinking up his new fiendish schemes. I'm not all that sure that as readers we care about the inner workings of Archie's mind. We are certainly never going to feel a great empathy with him. 

I don't even know what that is supposed to be
Jerry has a great poster in his school locker:

Jerry opened his locker. He had thumbtacked a poster to the back wall of the locker on the first day of school. The poster showed a wide expanse of beach, a sweep of sky with a lone star glittering far away. A man walked on the beach, a small solitary figure in all that immensity. At the bottom of the poster, these words appeared- Do I dare disturb the universe?

The quote is from T.S Eliot, who I was forced to study in high school as well. All I remember is that TS Eliot is an anagram of Toilets. Perhaps I may be old enough finally to appreciate him? Although I don't feel I'll ever be clever enough to get poetry. Jerry is shown very clearly by The Vigils that he shouldn't dare to disturb the universe. Jerry certainly does disturb the universe for a while, but has to decide in the end if that is worthwhile or not. He never seems like the sort of kid destined to do this in a way. 

Overall, I found the pace of the book a bit slow. It was only really at page 180 that things really got going. The book does however, build to a dramatic, and rather gripping climax. 

I actually don't mind this one
Is this the best YA book of all time, as has been claimed by some? No, I don't think so. But it has been an important, controversial and influential book and I am certainly glad to have read it on my way to growing up.


Parisbreakfasts said...

What a bunch of terrific books and authors on that banned list.
Great link - Thanks!

Unknown said...

Sounds very interesting - will ask the school librarian about it and see if we can track it down.