The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
Post number three of 2011 is for Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War, another required reading for YA Lit. I didn't know anything about this book prior to reading it, which was good, because I don't think I would have been able to get through it if I'd known what was coming. As it was, it was difficult enough for me to read, even without knowing what was going to happen at the end.
This book's protagonist is Jerry Renault, a freshman at an all boys Catholic high school called Trinity. Every year, the boys of Trinity are required to participate in a chocolate fundraiser, wherein they sell 25 boxes of chocolate at $1 each. This year, however, the substitute Headmaster, Brother Leon, has overstretched himself, and is requiring the boys to sell 50 boxes of chocolates at $2 each. He enlists the help of the book's main villain, Archie, and his other "secret society" (for lack of a better term) members The Vigils, to help with the sale. At first, Archie isn't interested, so really nothing happens. However, one of the things The Vigils do is set "assignments" for other students – namely underclassmen – to complete. Jerry's assignment is to refuse to sell the chocolates for ten school days, and then agree. However, Jerry decides at the end of the ten days to continue to not sell the chocolates. And that's when things start to go completely wrong.
The chocolate sales are way down from the previous year; no one wants to sell anything else, as that's something they do pretty much throughout the school year. They start all taking a page out of Jerry's book, and purposely not selling. Brother Leon is flipping out, because he paid for the chocolates out of the school's money (which he wasn't supposed to use) and is desperate to bring back in the money to replenish what he spent. So he goes back to Archie (who I HATED throughout this ENTIRE BOOK, UGH) and basically demands that The Vigils start lending outward support for the sales. Which they do, which in turn creates a sort of mob mentality, wherein everyone gets sucked into these sales and starts really caring about the results. So while Jerry was initially a hero for standing up to Leon and refusing to sell the chocolates, now he is a scapegoat who is being shunned at every possible opportunity. (This shunning includes prank phonecalls all hours of the night, nearly being pushed down the stairs, getting hit from behind during football practice, to receivers refusing to catch his passes during practice, to finally an altercation between Jerry and Janza, the school's biggest bully, where Janza and his "posse" beat the crap out of Jerry after school one day.)
It all comes to a head when Archie devises a plan to rake in the final $100 for Jerry's unsold chocolates by having a raffle contest, which goes horribly horribly wrong. (Not in Archie's opinion, of course, but in the minds of the readers.) The ending is left very ambiguous – you don't really know what becomes of Jerry – and the overall tone is just one of absolute darkness. I don't like to read about humiliation and harming others, and there are loads of those two things throughout this book, so this was a very difficult read for me. Also, you are made sympathetic to Jerry from the start (he lost his mom a few months prior to cancer, leaving him and his pharmacist!father on their own, with his dad working odd shifts all over the place), so to watch him have to go through all of this was physically painful for me at times and I had to keep putting the book aside (for a book that reads really fast and has super short chapters, it took me four days to get through). There are also extreme mentions of sexual things like masturbation (and all the crude names teen boys use to describe the act) and an air of violence even when nothing violent is happening, which gears this book toward teen boys who are reluctant readers, even if it was written in the 1970s.
I should point out that there are all kinds of little subplots throughout this, and Jerry's isn't the only pov we get to experience. We even get to go inside Archie's head (ugh) and Archie's stooge, Obie, as well as Janza the bully and a few others, but the tone of the book still remains. Hopelessness, danger, violence and darkness. Hurrah?
All in all, this was one of the hardest things for me to read in a very very long time, and I definitely will not be re-reading. Ugh, poor Jerry. :((
Currently reading: A Very Long Engagement by Sébastien Japrisot, I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak