Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War came out in 1974, but its violent themes and multiple perspective structure feel modern and relevant. As I read it, I was torn between my reader’s zeal for the story and my writer’s mind learning from the masterful turns of suspense and symbolism on each page. I’ll lay out my thoughts about the lessons I take from this book to apply to my work.
Cormier creates suspense from the first page – indeed, from the first line – to the last. Up to the very end, I was not sure what would happen or how things would turn out for the main character Renault. In fact, the subtly ambiguous ending leaves me still not quite knowing what to think. For days afterward, questions about Renault haunted my thoughts and, if that’s not a testament to incredible writing, I don’t know what is.
The first line of the book both draws the reader in and tells the whole story in three words: “They murdered him.” The him, Jerry Renault, is a freshman at an all boy’s Catholic high school, getting beaten to a pulp at the football team tryouts. The paragraphs that follow this powerful first line brim with violent imagery; the nameless players on the field are explosions and sharp edges, tearing Renault apart. He’s “a toy boat caught in a whirlpool.”
Yet, even as Renault feels defenseless, beaten, and abandoned, he is aware that the most important thing is to survive. To go on, after being knocked down. So, he does get up, and is rewarded with a spot on the team. His inner strength results in triumph.
His actions at the try-out attract attention from more than just the coach. Archie, an older student at Trinity, and the brains behind a gang called the Vigils, notices Renault’s strength and decides to put him to the test. And this is where the chocolate comes in.
Throughout the book, chocolate is a symbol for power. The annual chocolate sale, run by the manipulative and creepy Brother Leon, raises money for the school. Cormier suggests, though not explicitly, that Leon has made a deal for his own benefit and needs the boys to raise additional funds to cover up his unlawful expenditures. Leon’s grab for power relies on his ability to conscript the students, especially the Vigils, into selling enormous amounts of chocolate for him. In return, the Vigils receive their own bit of power. All goes well, everyone buying into this game of power handed up the chain, except for Jerry Renault. He’s a thoughtful loner, missing his recently deceased mother and isolated from his grieving father. Renault’s objection to the chocolate sale throws the whole established system into jeopardy and makes him a target for Leon and the Vigils. In an echo of the football tryout in the first chapter, these characters organize ruthless physical and emotional attacks on Renault. This, then, is the chocolate war. The power war.
We readers desperately want Renault to have victory at the end. But, does he? He’s beaten, but still alive. Is survival enough? There is no coach to offer him a reward to make his efforts worthwhile. In the world, is there a reward for moral behavior? Does taking a moral stand pay off? Is it its own reward? If Renault could go back to the start, would he put his head down and sell his portion of chocolate compliantly? These are some of the questions that linger in my mind at the end.
In addition to suspense and symbolism, Cormier effectively creates a microcosm by populating it with believable and purposeful characters. Although the central conflict is between Renault and Archie, the peripheral characters fill out the edges. A few members of the student body briefly participate in the conflict, but the boys largely act as a wave, swelling in a single direction. At first, there are glimmers of admiration and respect for Renault’s bravery, then when the Vigils go on the attack, the boys are eager to see blood spilled. Their preference for violence over morality chills me.
As a writer of young adult fiction, I often wonder how to deal with the adults in kids’ lives. Many writers choose to keep adults out of the story altogether in order to empower their main characters. More difficult is to include adult characters in a way that supports the story, as Cormier does. The adults in the pages of The Chocolate War, aside from Brother Leon, are mostly silent and ineffectual, but their presence in the story serves a purpose. They largely do not see what is happening; even Renault’s father ignores his son’s situation. Though they are supposed to protect and guide their children, the parents and teachers are ignorant and useless. One mother nags at her son about his manners, but her worries are so far from his own, and so insignificant, that he completely ignores her, “like shutting the sound of the television.” Cormier is pointing out here that the corrupt system of power relies on blindness as much as it does on the primary offenders, a message that is as relevant now as it was forty years ago.
The Chocolate War comes up often among writers, especially those whose stories feature teens, and I can see why. Cormier’s book is exciting, and does not shy away from the real challenges of teens’ lives, which, it turns out, aren’t so very different from the challenges in any one’s life. How many of us can say that we have figured out how to deal with corruption, that we always speak up when we see something wrong?
For more discussion of this book, listen to Jo Knowles speaking with Sara Zarr on the wonderful “This Creative Life” podcast, in which Knowles discusses Cormier’s impact on her work. Incidentally, Zarr’s podcast is always wonderful and worth a listen. The way she and her guests generously share their experiences and wisdom truly warms my heart and makes me happy to call myself a writer.
Also check out Junot Diaz’s related story in a recent issue of the New York Times Magazine, in which he also refers to Robert Cormier’s books.
To read previous entries in my DIY MFA series: