Recently, I found a copy of "Beyond the Chocolate War" by Robert Cormier at a used bookstore. I've been looking for it for a while, so I picked it up and read it last weekend, and then read "The Chocolate War" again, for, like, the 50th time. While "Beyond the Chocolate War" is a serviceable sequel, "The Chocolate War" itself is a brilliant book, psychologically complex and original, honest and brutal.

"The Chocolate War" is about the boys that attend Trinity, a private school. Most of the boys are average kids, but there is a secret organization at Trinity called The Vigils, which exists, basically, to make the other kids' lives miserable. The Vigils are run by Archie Costello, an evil mastermind who understands that it's a lot easier to destroy people through their psychological levers than it is to destroy them physically. When kids get beat up, the school administration has to take notice, but when a kid is beat up emotionally, there's really nothing for the teachers to do - consider the continuing problem of bullying. What's a principal or teacher supposed to do when a kid comes running up and says that "Bobby said mean things to me." It's just ... impossible.

Anyway, the other villain of "The Chocolate War" is Brother Leon, the Assistant Head Master, who is Archie, only all grown up. He, too, abuses his students psychologically, forcing kids to do things or not do them by berating them and abusing them. A perfect storm of events too complicated to explain here makes Brother Leon and Archie unwilling allies and culminates in a brutal and public beating of a Jerry Renault, a student at the school.

I could spend pages and pages telling you what happens in the book - Cormier's plotting has both action and psychological complexity - but the heart of the book is this question "what does it mean to be a good person?" We see almost all of the characters from inside their own heads, and all of them have their own ideas about what is right and what is not. Jerry, Archie, their friends and associates, all tell us why they're doing what they're doing. The effect of these multiple voices is to make the reader feel that he is one of the students of the school, hanging out in the hallway and watching all of these interactions take place in front of them. A second effect is the sense of impending doom. There's no way that the personalities presented in the book can't collide into one another with disastrous effect. The readers know, before any of the characters do, that something bad is going to happen, although it's impossible to predict what that bad thing will be. "The Chocolate War" demonstrates a mastery of plot that you don't often see in YA.

(An aside: the plot is where "Beyond the Chocolate War" falters a little. It's still a good book, but it's not a great book like the first one. Also, the first book takes place within the small world of an all-boys school, so there are very few women or girls in it. That doesn't bother me - it's dictated by the setting. But "Beyond the Chocolate War" expands in scope to include more women, and they are flat and affectless characters, made up of boobs and little else. Obviously, these characters are limited because they are seen through the prism of male teenage hormones, but I think it was a mistake to include so many of them. With the exception of one character's girlfriend, the girls in the plot are expendable, and they should have been expended.)


Hi Jay,
This is actually one of my favourite novels of all time. I didn't like how they destroyed the plot in the movie, and I didn't care for the sequel, but the original book is masterful. As a teacher, it's also totally believable.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008 at 11:23:00 PM EST  

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