The Chocolate War Wrap Up

My The Chocolate War posts:

Chapters One to Ten.

Chapters Eleven to Twenty.

Chapters Twenty One to Thirty.

Chapters Thirty One to Thirty Nine.

My Review.

Let me say: I really enjoyed this reading! Not just reading The Chocolate War; but also doing it as a group; and sharing these posts. And I also liked that it wasn’t tied to any particular new book promotion.

I also like that it confirmed my general distrust of “social reading.”

I like the social aspect of the aftermath of reading, obviously: I blog and I tweet and I talk about books all the time! I love that social aspect of reading — after I’m done.

And to be honest, as those who follow me on Twitter know, at times I did deliberately go onto Twitter and share a few in-the-moment thoughts.

But — and here’s the thing — my doing so was limited, and voluntary, and deliberate. It was also brief and rather limited and targeted; I had questions about the (non) appearance of women.

What made me think about social reading was the reader response I did with the book. Those responses reflect what I was thinking in the moment; what I knew based on what I had read, and what I had heard about the book.

Contrast that to the review itself: the review is, of course, more polished and thought out. It also leaves some things out. I decided not to explore certain things: Jerry’s family having a housekeeper; some of the teacher interactions that I think wouldn’t be allowed, even in a private school, in 2013. I didn’t dwell on some of the dated references, such as the hippies and the slang. When it came to balancing what I did and did not want to say in my review, these things weren’t significant enough for me to include. Now, for someone else? They may be. That’s OK — but I think if I’d been discussing “socially” as I read, these things would have been given greater significance in the moment than they warranted when looking at the book as a whole. In other words: it would have made mountains out of molehills. It would have changed what mattered.

It also could have changed how I thought about the book. The bit I talked about on Twitter had to do with the treatment of women; there was a mini conversation about the lack of women and eyeball rape and the like. As it was going on, I was thinking — how easy to go off on this tangent. How easy to make this a book about how women are viewed, or where viewed in 1974. That conversation could have overwhelmed and overshadowed what is powerful about The Chocolate War.

Then there is how I learned about things; being able to meet the book new-to-me. Or, yes, spoilers: how does social reading avoid spoilers? Even “just” a highlighted portion shifts the focus of my reading, to tell me that sentence has some type of meaning when it may not. I’d prefer not to have someone else’s priorities impact my reading.

So! I got a lot out of reading The Chocolate War: in terms of the book itself; in how I shape and reshape a review; and in how I like to interact with a text and other readers.

What about you? What are your thoughts on The Chocolate War? And on this read and blog a thon?

Review: The Chocolate War

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier. Random House. 1974. (over the years, many reprints and imprints!) Library copy.

The Plot: Trinity is a school ruled by an elite clique, The Vigils, and the person who runs that clique is Archie Costello. Archie creates  “assignments” for his fellow students: various stunts and pranks.

Jerry is a freshman, new to Trinity. Archie’s assignment to Jerry is simple: say “no” to the school fundraiser. Say “no” to selling chocolate.

Archie is a master manipulator, a puppet master. At the same time he’s telling Jerry not to sell chocolates, he’s told the teachers that he’s going to get The Vigils to make this the best chocolate sale ever. His fellow Vigils aren’t too thrilled with Archie.

After two weeks, Jerry is supposed to say “yes.”

Except he doesn’t. He continues to say “no.” Archie isn’t pleased: it’s his school, his group, his assignment, and people do what Archie wants them to do.

Who will win this battle of wills?

The Good: I’ve shared my reader reaction to The Chocolate War (CChapters One to Ten; Chapters Eleven to Twenty; Chapters Twenty One to Thirty; Chapters Thirty One to Thirty Nine).

Now that you’ve read that, what do you think I’ll say?

There was much I really liked about The Chocolate War. I liked Archie; not in that “I want to be his friend” way that sometimes people talk about when talking about characters. No; rather, I like how clearly Archie’s character is drawn. He is a manipulator; he is the smartest person in the room; he totally lacks any empathy. He’s either going to be the head of a large corporation or a serial killer. Archie may end up being extreme in how he treats people, but at the same time, there is an honesty in him and his observations that I found refreshing.

The Chocolate War is told through multiple viewpoints, primarily Archie and Jerry, but when people talk, oh, it’s mainly about Archie. For this reason, it’s Archie that seems the main character, even though when I think back there is little that is said about Archie. Nothing is said about his parents or his siblings. What is shown is Archie’s view of the world: what he thinks of others. How he uses them. How he sets them up. The Chocolate War is tightly focused on this one area of Archie’s life, The Vigils and the chocolate sales, as if that is all Archie is.

Jerry is supposed to be the main character. He starts the book; he takes the noble stand, of not selling chocolates. The reader is given a glimpse at Jerry’s life outside of school: a dead mother, a busy father, a girl he may like. And yet, when it comes to one of the most critical points in the book — Jerry being assigned to say “no” and saying “no” — Jerry is absent. His viewpoint isn’t shared. We don’t go back into his head until he decides to say “no” after Archie tells him to say “yes.”

Tells him.

No, rather, asks him. As other Vigils observe, Archie makes a misstep when asking Jerry to sell the chocolate. But does he? Archie’s view of people and motivations and what they do is such that I can see Archie leading Jerry to a place of “no.” And this is part of what I found so terrific about The Chocolate War: because of the disjointed voices telling the story, because of Archie, because of how it begins and how it ends, there is so much to talk about and discuss.

On big discussion point is how Archie sets others up; how he views the world, his manipulations. I’ll be honest (well, why not, it is my review), in that up until the last few  chapters I had some sympathy for Archie. Part of that is because I liked his observations. Pushing myself to be honest – yes, I’ll confess to having a bit of Archie in me. Until I got to the end, and Archie showed no empathy or guilt. I found this an interesting choice, because I think there is something good and true about having a book show us a mirror of the darkness that can exist in people, including ourselves. It shows us those dark impulses or knowledge isn’t something that we alone have. It’s a common guilty secret, not a unique one.

The violent end of The Chocolate War is a caution, not against the darkness in others but the darkness in ourselves. Yet, despite Cormier being the King of Hopeless, he gives us a reason to hope. By making Archie a sociopath without remorse, the reader, who is shocked by the end, who is feeling empathy, can say to themselves, I’m better than Archie because I wouldn’t go that far. I would feel terrible.

Part of what there is to discuss involves reading The Chocolate War in 2013, not in 1974, or not when I was a teenager. I’m not sure why I didn’t read it when I was a teenager. Readers of this blog know that I read YA books back in the day, so it wasn’t that I wasn’t interested in YA books. I don’t remember making the decision not to read it.

As an adult reader, in 2013, I really disliked the way women were portrayed. Not the adults – no, I get the casual dismissal of adults, their lives and choices. In that way, The Chocolate War is classic YA. No, it’s the way the teenage boys look at teenage girls. They are all objects: sources of masturbation fantasy, things to be looked at. The two girls who get names are Rita and Ellen: unlike the boys, their viewpoint is never shared. Rita, while only fourteen, is a quid pro quo girl who is older than her years. She grants kisses and more based on what her boyfriend buys her. When Ellen steps out of the fantasy Jerry has painted by both not knowing who Jerry is and using a word he dislikes, she becomes someone he doesn’t want anymore. She becomes a lesser being, not good enough for him.

Frankly, it’s disturbing; and especially disturbing because there is no counterpoint. Most of the Trinity boys turn out to be rotten, but they all aren’t. We’re shown various backgrounds and motivations, fears and hopes and dreams. The girls don’t have this: they exist only in how the boys view them. And how the boys view them, well, they aren’t viewed whole. I wonder, if I had read this as a teenager, what would I have thought? Would I just have been swept away by the portraits of Archie and Jerry and the terrible things that happen? Would I not have noticed?

I don’t think that the portrayal of women makes The Chocolate War a bad book. No; it makes the conversation about it more nuanced. Is this about the world in 1974? Or is it equally true in 2013?

So my conclusion? The Chocolate War ended up being a Favorite Book Read in 2013.


The Chocolate War: Read A Long Part 4

Now, the next part of my readalong of The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier.


Chapters One to Ten.

Chapters Eleven to Twenty.

Chapters Twenty One to Thirty.

Chapter Thirty One

Jerry recognizes the bullies and is confronted by Janza.

And, wait, really? “You live in the closet.” This is the big insult?

“He wanted to make his own decisions” — is he? Really? Is any of this Jerry’s decision? Without the assignment, would he have said “no”?

So. “You’re a fairy. A queer” and “vomit threatened Jerry’s throat.” I’d like to say that this would be dated in 2013, but it’s not.

“The worst thing in the world — to be called a queer.”

And a bunch of kids beat up Jerry. No, really, apparently Janza brought back-up and they’re not even in high school.

Chapter Thirty Two

Let’s have a moment to note the casual violence. Because Jerry has been beat up and nothing?

And the phone calls and harassment continue.

And Jerry doesn’t tell his father.

Hm — 1974. Way, way, way before helicopter parents. Wonder what the helicopter parents of today would do with all this.

Chapter Thirty Three

And guess what! Archie was pulling Janza’s strings, down to the insults. Of course. Who didn’t know that?

Chapter Thirty Four

And now the silent treatment for Jerry. Again, I’d like to point out that bullying like this is equal opportunity, not just girls, not just boys.

And he’s still getting a bit roughed up.

The chocolate has all been sold and Leon is happy because he has his money.

Another big deep question (I can totally see why this is used in schools, so much to discuss!): what is more important, the school or the individual? The question is a bit easy to answer, though, in The Chocolate War because the school is rotten with a ton of nasty people in it.

Well, the chocolate sale is over but Archie’s games aren’t. He is having a “special assembly” tomorrow night.

Chapter Thirty Five

A boxing ring.

A rally.

Without adults.

Oh, this is so not good.

And I understand why Archie is here. And Janza. And the nameless students. But Jerry? Really? Why?

Was this always Archie’s endgame? Or was he making it up as he went along?

And, still, the absence of parents.

“He had successfully conned Renault and Leon and The Vigils and the whole damn school. I can con anyone. I am Archie.”

And Jerry realizes he’s been tricked.

So, what is going on? Some type of raffle? Some weird rules? Pretty smart of Archie to involve the whole school: make sure guilt is shared equally.

Emile Janza. I almost feel sorry for him. “He had feelings like everyone else.  . . . All right, so he liked to screw around a little, get under people’s skin. That was human nature, wasn’t it?” Maybe it’s that Janza isn’t as manipulative as Archie. Maybe it’s that Archie has manipulated Emile into being his fists, for all of Archie’s not liking violence and sweat. But I do feel a bit sorry for Janza.

Chapter Thirty Six

“They would have to fight the way the guys in the bleachers directed them.”

I cannot entirely hate Archie because this is pretty darn brilliant. And the crowd mentality, and knowing they won’t walk away, not even the participants.

Archie: “People are two things. Greedy and cruel.” (Ha, sort of like the old saying that you cannot cheat an honest man.)

“Archie repelled him in many ways but most of all by the way he made everybody feel dirty, contaminated, polluted. As if there was no goodness at all in the world.”

Yes, this.

Interesting: Carter is a bit troubled as to whether this all means the world is bad, even though his presence here and his past actions clearly put him in the bad category. He just doesn’t recognize it. Archie makes people see that in themselves, perhaps?

Oh — and Archie does his first misreading. He thinks Carter is jealous. He doesn’t recognize that Carter is upset. So, I guess Archie is either a psychopath or sociopath? Which puts this book a bit beyond realistic for me, to be honest — Archie’s evilness, his lack of empathy or compassion or anything, is a bit too much.

The black box of chance comes out and Archie wins once again. Is it fixed? Who knows? Only thing for sure: Archie is playing at such a different level than anyone else, that no one here is even close to him.

Chapter Thirty Seven

Goober shows up, mainly to bear witness. Goober, who basically is so sickened by all this he has been literally home sick. (With parents!) I have to say: I don’t see Goober as weak,  or a coward, I don’t judge him for not doing more. Goober is the only half-decent person here. The odds are so stacked against him and Jerry. Just transfer, man. Public school is not a bad option.

Of course this all goes horribly wrong and Renault becomes a punching bag. As it gets bad, a few (Carter at least) run away. But the mob stays.

And Jerry; it ends for Jerry as it began. Getting the crap beat out of him, it’s just the context is different.

Goober is horrified. Obie is disgusted.

Chapter Thirty Eight

Archie is confronted by a teacher, but if you think it’s the kind of book where a teacher asserts any type of moral authority or power and Archie gets in trouble, what book have you been reading because this is not that kind of book.

A doctor is called and Jerry is in pretty bad shape. He is broken in body and spirit. Conform, he warns Goober, or “otherwise they murder you.” Except it’s not quite “they” because Jerry played into this by showing up and participating in the rally and the fight.

And Archie? Doesn’t give a damn. Still clam and cool.

And really? No one is going to follow up on this? Even in 1974? An AMBULANCE and it’s just “boys will be boys”?

Leon is even more of a sociopath than Archie. Because he watched it all and enjoyed it; and because Leon was motivated by greed. It implies, at least, a bit of a choice and I wonder if Archie has any choice in how he is.

Chapter Thirty Nine

And it ends as it began with Archie and Obie. Sitting on a bleacher. Frenemies.

The Chocolate War: Read A Long Part 3

Now, the next part of my readalong of The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier.


Chapters One to Ten.

Chapters Eleven to Twenty.

Chapter Twenty One

Wait a woman! A mother! Who is ignored by her son because all she does is talk “gibberish” and her son is treating her terribly.

Well, I’ll say this — pretty much all the parents are treated this way. Not just the mothers. The difference in the teenaged characters is that the boys, for all their problems and issues and cruelty, are three dimensional characters. The girls are not.

And to be honest? I’m not liking many of these boys. They just aren’t nice. The thing is, so many, many of them aren’t nice.

More kids aren’t selling the chocolate.

At this point, a personal aside: I went to a Catholic high school. Obviously, not like this one! Not single sex, for one thing. So my personal bias for any fundraising is that’s it not a great evil. Tuition doesn’t grow on trees. Extras cost extras. Money has to come from somewhere and “just raise tuition” means some kids then can’t attend. Funds need to be raised. Of course, in The Chocolate War, it’s not about fundraising — it’s about conformity and power and manipulation.

Anyway. Back to Richie and his girl watching: “Watching girls and devouring them with your eyes — rape by eyeball — was something you did automatically.”

Back to prior point: this isn’t just Richie. It’s every damn boy. Apparently Trinity isn’t just an all boy school; or an all boy school with only dead mothers or annoying mothers; it’s also an all boy school with no sisters. Girls are just walking “things” of curves and tight clothes.

That girl passes by and Richie is “looking for another girl to enjoy.

Back to Archie, who doesn’t like sweat. Also more words of wisdom from Archie: “It was good to have people hate you — it kept you sharp.”

Oh! And there is a girl’s school, Miss Jeromes. Are you sitting down? Cause while this isn’t quite like raping with eyeballs, it’s equally girl as object: “You could let your eyes devour some luscious sights and usually talk one of them into the car, for a ride home, with detours.”

As for interactions: looks like Obie has manipulated Archie against Jerry. Only, maybe it’s just me, but I think Archie is always the smartest one in the room. Or, rather, the one pulling the most strings.

Chapter Twenty Two

Leon is a miserable man.

Chapter Twenty Three

Oh! Another girl! With a name! Perhaps all my ranting is wrong and I just had to wait for over half of the book!

Ellen. She’s beautiful. Of course, all the girls here are. But, no going on and on about her breasts, so that’s something, right?

And back to Goober, who observes “there’s something rotten in that school.” It’s like the point in the horror movie when the people realize the house is haunted by a murderous ghost, yet still stick around. And I’d change “something” to “almost everyone who attends or teaches.”

Chapter Twenty Four

Ah, I suspected as much. It’s not just about the fundraising — Leon has been playing money games and doesn’t want to get caught. (Side note: but still, the tuition must be much less than it would be nowadays because the teachers are all religious who live at their Order’s house, so, basically, not the same salary issues as today. It’s also something I thought about when watching Call the Midwife: you could pay less when the expectations of employees was their own room and joint meals, rather than their own home. And paying less meant the cost of services was less.


So, it’s NOT about fundraising, even though of course the teens don’t know that. And now Leon orders Archie to order The Vigils to order Jerry to sell chocolates. Because Leon is trying to cover up his own mistakes. Plus, as said earlier, power, manipulation, etc.

Chapter Twenty Five

Archie: is manipulating the room. It’s almost beautiful to watch. And interesting to see the levels of awareness around him: Obie knows, a bit, and is resentful. Carter gets it and goes along.

And then Archie “asks” Jerry to sell the chocolates. Obie thinks it’s a slip, but me — no. Archie doesn’t slip. It’s not said here, but I think Archie is manipulating Jerry to keep saying “no”. Why? So as to show he’s not about to be ordered by Leon? Or is he pushing Jerry to a very specific square on the chessboard of Trinity?

Carter doesn’t like the psychological games Archie plays and just wants to give Jerry “a stiff jab to the jaw, and another to the belly.” Foreshadowing!

Carter doesn’t mind the “stunts.” It’s just the mind games he doesn’t like.

Chapter Twenty Six

A girl! A real live girl. Ellen Barrett, from before, and wait for it — she is on page and she has lines. I KNOW.

So, in this pre Internet world, Jerry saw her name on her school books and looked it up and made phone calls until he called the right Barrett household.

I’m a bit torn: stalking or sweet? In another book, it would be sweet.

Sadly, his “we’ve never met but you’ve smiled at me at the bus stop” phone call doesn’t go well, because this is Robert Cormier not Sarah Dessen. (Can you imagine? The Chocolate War with a Sarah Dessen spin?)

And as Ellen is basically reacting as one would to someone they don’t know calling them, she says “crap.”

The word ‘crap,’ echoing now in his mind, had destroyed all illusion about her. Like meeting a lovely girl and having her smile reveal rotten teeth.”

On the one hand, I think Cormier realizes that the way the boys view these girls is all illusion and their viewpoint. Still, especially since the male-female interaction is such a minor point of this book, I cannot excuse it. Because as a woman reading it, it’s keeping me at a bit of a distance. I’m not included; I’m excluded. I’m also a bit disappointed right now with Jerry; along with Goober, he’s the only sympathetic character and this — this objectifying of a woman and now dismissing her because she is “real” and not a “thing” — makes him less likable. Is the problem that she said “crap”? Or is the problem that she doesn’t embrace him?

Basically, Ellen has become a stupid girl who has her own stupid vocabulary and stupid personality that is rotten and spoils his illusions because his illusions are what matter, right? And this is a minor point, but it’s still here, and why? Why is it here? I see it as meaning we cannot trust, entirely, Jerry’s perspective, but is that what the intent of this is? Because I’m afraid Ellen’s refusal is supposed to be about Jerry, not Ellen, and the point is that Jerry has been rejected and has lost something. That Ellen has failed him by saying crap, by not saying “oh, the cute boy on the bus, has failed him by being Ellen and not his dream.

Oh, and Jerry is saying “no” to the chocolate sale, despite being “asked” to say yes. Part of what I like is Jerry trying to figure out just why he keeps saying “no.” “The sense that his bridges were burning behind him and for once in his life he didn’t care.”

Despite this over-reading of it, I’ll give the boy points for calling Ellen. And at least he’s one and done, not repeating the calls. That would push this into stalking.

Chapter Twenty Seven

“No one had ever challenged Archie or an assignment.” Rollo is talking back to Archie and The Vigils (rock band name alert!), so it’s nice to know that someone does, but then Carter beats up Rollo for doing so, so now we see why most of the fellows perform their assignments without question.

Carter also manages to show Archie who is “really” in power with that punch. (But does he? We’ll see.)

Still, I’m curious as to the origins of The Vigils, and why it’s such a big deal, and whether, perhaps, it started as something truly fun.

Archie could have his own calendar. “Thoughts by Archie,” target audience CEOs and politicians. Here: “When in doubt, do nothing at all. When in doubt, play the waiting game.”

Archie’s levels of awareness make me wonder what his home life is like. Alas, we never meet his parents. Actually? We never meet many of the boys’ parents.

Archie decides to make selling chocolates “cool” and to push Jerry into a loner/outsider status. Which, may I add — I wonder if this was his game all along. Or if Archie just makes it up as he goes along.

Chapter Twenty Eight

Basically, we’re shown Jerry’s life now that Archie has decided that the school should embrace chocolate selling and turn against Jerry. Once again, it’s not about the chocolates.

So: Jerry gets targeted on the football field, so that attacks are masked as “just” practice. He also gets prank called at home: calls, hang ups, that type of thing.

Note: Doesn’t this sound like what “mean girls” do? Here, and later, what the boys do to Archie just reminds me of some things that today seem to be gender coded as how “girls” bully, not “boys.”

Turns out, aside from The Vigils and the chocolates, Trinity is a pretty pathetic place. As Goober would say, rotten. “Most of the kids don’t give a damn or have any respect for the rights of others. They rummaged desks, pried lockers open, sifted through books on a perennial search for loot — money, pot, books, watches, clothing — anything.”

Jerry’s poster in his locker is defaced. I forgot to mention, it’s “Do I Dare Disturb The Universe” so even more meaning!

So, his locker is messed up, his shoes cut up, etc. Still: “no.”

Chapter Twenty Nine

Archie’s plan is working, in that there is a noted increase in chocolate sales.

Chapter Thirty

Chocolate roll call continues, everyone is getting resentful of Jerry, and the bullying continues.

At this point, I’m thinking the different messages or meanings people can take from The Chocolate War, about government and power, group dynamics, and manipulation.

Goober sees the games being played but there isn’t much he can do.

The Chocolate War: Read A Long Part 2

My readalong of The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier continues.

Chapters One to Ten.

Chapter Eleven

I have to say, the screw stunt is pretty funny. Even though part of me is saying, someone could have gotten hurt. And part of me is saying it was just a little too much, too extreme. And while it may be funny, it’s not, because the set up to get there was cruel and even here, it’s about being mean to the teacher, not about being funny.

The destruction of Room Nineteen took exactly thirty-seven seconds. Archie timed it from the doorway. A sweetness gathered in his breast as the saw the room being turned into a shambles, a sweet moment of triumph that compensated for all other lousy things, his terrible marks, the black box.

Archie is just fascinating — his joy in destruction, that it’s a triumph, that he uses his talents for The Vigil assignments instead of anything else.

Oh, teacher gripped his shoulder painfully and pushed a student against the wall! Another reminder that it’s not 2013.

Chapter Twelve

A triumphant football practice for Jerry. Too bad this won’t last.

Chapter Thirteen

Wait, the teacher had a nervous breakdown because of the Room Nineteen stunt? That seems a bit much.

The room would never be the same again, of course.” Metaphor alert!

And, finally — Jerry says “no” to selling chocolates for the “strictly voluntary” sale.

Chapter Fourteen

Female alert! Someone has an Aunt Agnes!

And a name. Dead mom, magazine girl, hippy chick — no names.

No, I’m wrong, the housekeeper had a name. Mrs. Hunter, in Chapter Nine.

And now, Tubs Casper. What a name! Tubs has a mother and a half drunk father, but for purposes of this, he also has a real, live girlfriend.

Spoiler: this is Tubs main appearance. He’s not a major player. And the real live girlfriend? Never shows up; it’s just Tubs thinking about her.

And sadly — she’s a gold digger. No, really. “Money, money, money had become the constant need of his life, money and his love for Rita.” Girl wants to go to movies! ($2.50 each). And then have a coke after! (50 cents each). He buys her earrings, and she brushes against him. He wants to get her a bracelet (she’s pointed it out to him, $18.95) and who knows what will happen then? Did I mention Tubs’ mother doesn’t like Rita, because she “looks to old.”

Rita is fourteen.

Rita is “beautiful in a ripe, wild way . . .  Those beautiful breasts bouncing under her jersey.”

And, sigh, Tubs is using the candy sale money to fund his romance with the gold digger.

Note: the first teenage girl is Rita. Chapter Fourteen. And she has none of the complexity we’ve seen in any of the boys, even those who show up for just a few paragraphs. She doesn’t even have a voice or point of view. She’s just a girl who is trying to get jewelry from a boy.

Spoiler: this is as good as it gets for female representation. Women are mostly absent from the world of The Chocolate War.

Oh, and another teen feeling “sorry for older people” and “his own parents and their useless lives.”

Chapter Fifteen

And I guess this is why the book gets challenged: Archie is blackmailing Emile with a photo that doesn’t exist of Emile masturbating in a bathroom at school.

Archie again: “The world was made up of two kinds of people — those who were victims and those who were victimized.”

Just a bleak view of everything.

Chapter Sixteen

So, Brother Leon is totally lying to David to get David to do something. Leon’s a nasty piece of work. With role models like Leon, no wonder Archie and Emile and the others have such horrid views of the world.

And I have to say, I don’t get Leon’s obsession with this chocolate sale.

“Were teachers like everyone else, then? Were teachers as corrupt as the villains you read about in books or saw in movies and television?” It’s almost sweet to think that someone would be a teen in high school and only just realizing this. Not that teachers are corrupt, no; but that adults are flawed. (But to be honest – the world of The Chocolate War is full of some deeply broken people who enjoy hurting others. There is no room for flaws that make a person real rather than perfect. Not that there is anything wrong with that — more about it in my review — but this is a place of extremes. No in between.)

So people are being manipulative all over the place. And we’re told that Jerry saying “no” to the chocolates is an assignment from The Vigils. (Note: we don’t see any of Jerry’s point of view during this assignment. One thing I find extremely fascinating with this story is who tells the story when, what they tell, and who doesn’t say anything.0

Having not read this, and only known some generalities, part of me is a bit shocked to learn that Jerry’s refusal is the result of manipulation.

And he did see — that life was rotten, that there were no heroes, really, and that you couldn’t trust anyone, not even yourself.

Got it; lesson learned. It’s going to take Jerry a bit longer, I think. Also, while part of me is going “stop with the extremes” the other part of me is going “but this is realistic, in how teens think.”

Since it’s just about halfway through the book: more lessons are coming, methinks.

Chapter Seventeen

And now Jerry’s assignment is over and the class and Leon wait for Jerry to sell chocolate. “Now, Jerry could become himself again, human again.” Nope, not Jerry’s point of view, not yet. It’s his friend, Goober.

No, I’m not going to sell chocolates.” “Cities fell. Earth opened. Planets tilted. Stars plummeted. And the awful silence.”

And all the pieces have been put into play. How it’ll all work, I have no idea.

Chapter Eighteen

And now, Jerry’s point of view. So we can only guess his reaction to the assignment, and going through with it, and why the “no” even when he didn’t have to say it anymore. But Jerry isn’t sure, either, and he’s in his bedroom wondering why.

Also, his bedroom has a linoleum floor. Sorry, I find that odd and worth noting. Just because.

He hadn’t planned to do any such thing of course.”

“Cruelty sickened Jerry — and the assignment, he realized after a few days, was cruel, even though Archie Costello had insisted that it was only a stunt that everyone would get a kick out of later.”

If cruelty sickens you, Jerry, don’t read this book. Also, change schools while you can. Is homeschooling an option?

Chapter Nineteen

Mention of a road trip and getting carsick! Yay for 2013 and medicine for that.

Some mixed reactions from Jerry’s peers, who basically also want to just say no to selling chocolate.


The Chocolate War: Read A Long Part 1

Remember how I wasn’t sure whether or not I’d read The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier?

I can safely say that I did not read it!

So, what we have here is my reader response reaction as I read ; it’s consolidated from thirty-odd pages of notes. I’m dividing it out over four days; then, on Friday, I’ll have my actual review.

This will be chapter by chapter; and yes, there will be spoilers. I’m also not going to be explaining who is who or what is happening —

So, ready?

Chapter One.

They murdered him.” Well, that’s one way to start a book! Literally or figuratively? Also, foreshadowing much?

“Him” turns out to be Jerry, a freshman trying out for the football team. At first, I thought there were going to be mean Dad issues or mean Coach issues. Nah, not so much.

It was important to portray no distress.” Turns out, Jerry is a freshman trying out for the football team. But more foreshadowing!

So there is sports and ignoring physical pain, and as I read this I think, hey, I wonder if there are any women in this book?

Poor Jerry: “He had never felt so lonely in his life, abandoned, defenseless.” Dude, you have no idea what is coming.

Jerry makes the team. Oh, and he has a dead mother. This does not bode well for female representation.

Chapter Two.

“Obie was bored.” As this is Cormier: boredom will not lead to anything good. “Most of all, he was tired of Archie. Archie the bastard. The bastard that Archie alternately hated and admired.”

We also find out that Archie is the rebel, the smart one, the fill in the blank that he’s not like the others because “I’m just chewing a wafer they buy by the pound in Worcester.” So not only is he not buying it; he’s also letting us know that since he has no belief, he has no guilt. This is going to matter.

Oh, “some PR cats.” It’s 1974; the slang is a wee bit different. Ha, Obie is eye rolling at Archie: “one of his phony hip words.” But not too much eye rolling: “Obie . . . hat[ed] the thing in him that made him look at Archie in admiration.”

Obie and Archie have a bit of a love-hate thing going on; and each have a certain level of self-awareness.

“…the way [Archie] could be a wise bastard one minute and a great guy the next.”

Only a certain level of awareness: Archie is quite the manipulator. He is not a great guy; he’s playing you.

We find out about the school secret club, The Vigils, and that “Archie disliked violence — most of his assignments were exercises in the psychological rather than the physical. That’s why he got away with so much. The Trinity brothers wanted peace at any price, quiet on the campus, no broken bones. Otherwise, the sky was the limit.” More foreshadowing! And Cormier is telling us right up front: Archie likes to play with people.

Chapter Three

The girl was heart-wrenchingly impossibly beautiful.” And just as I’m eye-rolling it turns out it’s a girl in a magazine. “A longing filled him. Would a girl ever love him?” Oh, Jerry.

There are moments where the sadness and loneliness of teenagers — it just overwhelms.

Except, “the one devastating sorrow he carried within him was the fear that he would die before holding a girl’s breast in his hand.” OK, it’s not that I don’t find this both realistic and humorous and still, the longing, but here’s the thing. Jerry doesn’t want to love; he wants to be loved so he can get something. And this was the point where, even though I knew this was a book about an all-boys school, that it hit me: this book was not going to pass the Bechdel Test.

Oh, and there are some hippies.

Chapter Four

The chocolates show up, with Brother Leon and his goal to sell twice the number of boxes the year before at double the price.

Archie on adults: “they were vulnerable, running scared, open to invasion.”

School has no wealthy alumni, the boys aren’t from rich families, need money. Got it.

More on The Vigils: “The Vigils kept things under control.” “Archie believed in always doing the smart thing. Not the thing you ached to do, not the impulsive act, but the thing that would pay off later.”

I may be feeling a bit sorry for Jerry, but Archie is the one who is interesting.

Chapter Five

Archie seems to know himself; that he likes to toy with others. He just doesn’t care.

So The Vigils big thing is that they give other students “assignments” which are “stunts” – basically pranks that have a bit of cruelty to them. Got it. Why do the students go along with this? I mean, one of The Vigils is the muscle to threaten people into compliance, but really — why do the boys go along? When did it start? Was it always this cruel? Who did this before Archie?

Chapter Six

Brother Leon is cruel, and there is a good deal of contempt and emotional abuse.

Chapter Seven

Who is going to be nasty and cruel now?

And can you imagine these people with access to the Internet? Troll central.

And now we meet Emile Janza. “He found the world was full of willing victims.” And since “most kids wanted peace at any price” he could get what he wanted. So, another bully. And Archie is blackmailing Emile with some sort of photo.

Chapter Eight

Goober, a friend of Archie, talking about running: “everything seemed beautiful, everything in its proper orbit, nothing impossible, the entire world attainable.”

That is beautiful. Too bad it’s not that type of book.

And more confirmation of the cruelty of the pranks.

Chapter Nine

Jerry and his parents– dead mom, working dad. And his dad, “that familiar smell that was his father,” which includes “cigarette tobacco.” Wow, in that I can remember how often reading this is books — the smell of a parent including cigarettes and that wasn’t a bad thing, not a problem, it just was.

OK, this is funny to me — so, Jerry and his dad are living in an apartment, having sold the house after his mother died. And remember, the families at the school aren’t rich. They have a housekeeper! All you need to know about how I grew up or live now — no housekeepers. Not even a cleaning lady. That’s a sign of having money.

Jerry: “was life that dull, that boring and humdrum for people? He hated to think of his own life stretching ahead of him that way, a long succession of days and nights that were fine, fine — not good, not bad, not great, not lousy, not exciting, not anything.” Thinking of “his [father’s] life, so pale and gray, Jerry was plunged into sadness.”

So true: that teen view of adults and the future. There is some terrific description here, even if it’s of the “glass half full” or actually “glass is broken” world view.

Chapter Ten

There was nothing more beautiful in the world than the sight of a teacher getting upset.”

Ha! Another great observation. And Archie; at this point, I just can’t hate him. Not sure why.



The Chocolate War Week Begins

And The Chocolate War: A Read & Blog Along begins!

As explained in this earlier post, I have never read The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier.

Inspired by this confession, Kelly Jensen of Stacked and Leila Roy of Bookshelves of Doom decided why not share the joy of reading, or rereading, The Chocolate War?

And thus The Chocolate War: A Read & Blog Along was born! This is the week that Kelly, Leila and I are blogging about The Chocolate War, each in our own unique way.

My way: for four days, starting Monday, I will be sharing my chapter by chapter reader response reaction to reading The Chocolate War for the very first time.

Then, on Friday, I will be posting my review of The Chocolate War.

Please, join us! Leave a link to this post, and I’ll be adding it to this post each night.

Talking about The Chocolate War on Twitter? We have a hashtag, #ChocWarRA. Please feel free to use the image, created by Kelly.

Other ChocWarRA posts:

Leslie Stella on The Chocolate War (added 5/14): “The brutal ending outraged many readers (particularly parents and school administrators), but this book is a tragedy. Shakespeare wrote a few, ya know? Yes, it’s grim stuff, but it presents an eerily accurate portrayal of human cruelty and conformity within the confines of school. I think of the popularity of paranormal YA books, where an alternate reality is presented as deadly and frightening, but to me, nothing is more frightening than the regular world.” Stella’s Permanent Record, which references The Chocolate War, is one of the reasons I decided to finally read The Chocolate War.

Kelly at Stacked on First Impressions (added 5/14): “Not as controversial as I hoped, though I was disgusted by the characters discussing how they raped attractive girls with their eyes. That’s all I had to say about Cormier’s book on my first read. I suspect my second read might merit a few more words, and I’m dying to know whether either of these statements still hold true. What did I want in terms of controversy in 2008? Will I see gender issues still? I’m actually pretty surprised to see that pop up in my review because when I thought about my reading of the book back then, gender wasn’t something I remembered at all. But it was apparently noteworthy!”

Kelly at Stacked on A Cover Retrospective, English Editions (added 5/14): “What’s interesting is how there’s really not too much about the cover: it’s dark, and there’s the ominous shadow of the boy on the cover. I do love how huge and almost foreboding the shadow looks, too. The boy himself appears young, too. But otherwise, this cover doesn’t tell the reader a whole lot about the book. It fits with what was in vogue in YA covers for the 70s (of what I’ve seen anyway) and it looks like the kind of book that could have a wide appeal to it.

Lauren at The Raucaus Librarian (added 5/14) (technically written before #ChocWarRA, but Lauren left a note about this at Kelly’s blog so of course we are including it!): “I also really admire the skillful way Cormier manages the shifting perspectives of the story.  The most conventional (and probably the easiest) method of presenting this novel would have been to choose one character and have the reader see everything through the lens of that character, either through the use of first person or third person limited omniscient narration.  Instead, Cormier uses a continuously shifting point of view that lets us see into the minds of not only the protagonist Jerry but also the other boys at Trinity—Archie, the Goober, Obie, Caroni, and Emile Janza.  While we may not understand someone like Archie, telling the story from his perspective, even if only in snippets, allows us access to his thought process and the rationale behind his actions.

Bookshelves of Doom, Chapters 1 – 5 (added 5/14) “It blew my mind when I read it as a teenager, it blew my mind when I read it in my 20s, and I fully expect it to blow my mind again now. It’s a brutal story—emotionally, philosophically, physically—and Cormier doesn’t pull any punches or offer any platitudes. Life isn’t fair, bad things happen to those who don’t deserve it, justice isn’t always served, and people can be broken. And yet. And yet, despite where the story leaves him, there’s something inspiring in Jerry Renault’s attempt to matter, to find meaning, to disturb the universe.

Bookshelves of Doom, Chapters 6 – 11 (added 5/14): “So, that bit where Jerry sees his mother’s face superimposed over his father’s face? I know I SHOULD have found that emotionally moving or something, but really all it made me think of was that time on Twin Peaks where Mrs. Palmer is talking to Stupid Donna Hayward and she has a vision of Laura’s face and then she does what she does best and freaks out.”

Why The Chocolate War Matters by Angie Manfredi, Guest Post at Stacked (added 5/15): “To me, Cormier’s greatest legacy is the clear definition between children’s and young adult literature. There was no mistaking it – this was not a book for children. It was a book for older readers, those ready to tackle big, hard questions and moral grey areas, readers who didn’t demand or need everything all wrapped up with a big bow. Yet even with that, it still wasn’t for adults.  No – this was a book just for teens.  All these years later, it still is.”

Thoughts On The Chocolate War at Beth Reads (added 5/16): “I can see why this book has been challenged to hell and back.  Disrespect for authority, smoking, masturbation references, the implication that adults in general, and religious figures specifically, don’t always have teens’ best interest at heart are all hot button issues. I guarantee they came up more in challenges than the actual violence in the book. Of course, most of these things were a much bigger deal in the 70s and 80s but challenges are still around.”

A Cover Retrospective, Foreign Editions by Kelly at Stacked (added 5/18): “Why is there a girl on it? What boy in The Chocolate War spends any time with a girl? There’s a phone call, but that is the closest to a girl getting page time that there is. Certainly, no boy is walking with a girl like that in the story. So that it’s representative of the book on the cover is bizarre and noteworthy because it doesn’t even happen in the book. But aside from that strange choice in image, I love the illustrated effect. Except, doesn’t it make the book look like it’s almost a happy story? It certainly doesn’t have a darkness or a shadow lingering over it. The design definitely nails the prep school look but this cover doesn’t have anything to do with the book. Dare I say it looks almost like a romance?

The Chocolate War by Kelly at Stacked (added 5/18): “How did I feel about Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War five years after reading it for the first time? Much, much differently. But I say that as a matter of my only real opinion last time was that this book wasn’t as controversial as I’d once suspected and that I didn’t like the way the boys in the book thought about girls. And now, with a few years of reading YA under my belt and a few years of actually working with teens, I think I went in with different expectations. I also got to leave the book with different reactions, too.

Inspired By — And Read Alikes To — The Chocolate War by Kelly at Stacked (added 5/18): “What do you read next? Here’s a short list with some suggestions for further reading. Some of these titles cover aspects of bullying. Some are about portraying the truth in the most honest and painful way possible. Some of them are about social dynamics and social truths. Some of them are all of the above. Part of why I wanted to put together this short list is because a number of books that more recent YA readers have come to know were inspired by Cormier’s classic, whether or not they were aware of it. In many ways, this book opened up a dialog about peer pressure, about conformity, and about the dynamics of relationships in high school in teen fiction and in teen lives.

No Star For You! at Bookshelves of Doom (OK, including this is a massive spoiler but hey, it’s funny, so here it is) (added 5/18): “So, can you guess what book this disappointed reader is reviewing?”

The Chocolate War, Chapters 12 – 17 at Bookshelves of Doom (added 5/18): “I love the structure of this chapter: Cormier shows the passage of time with brief vignettes of random students selling chocolates interspersed with scenes of the daily battle of wills between Brother Leon and Jerry in homeroom. His ability to create three-dimensional, believable characters with just a few paragraphs is lovely, as is his trust in his audience to be able to keep up with the rapid pace of the scene changes.”

The Chocolate War, Chapters 18 – 28 at Bookshelves of Doom (added 5/19): “The prank described in this chapter—every time a certain teacher uses the word ‘environment’, the students all jump up and dance around like crazy for a minute—is brilliant and hilarious. (Though, like many of the others, it creates an undercurrent of fear and apprehension, too.) But it’s also a great example of Archie, once again, playing puppetmaster with EVERYONE: he has no loyalty to anyone but himself, and once he’s bored with the teacher’s discomfort, he turns the tables and makes the students the victims.” (Also, I love how Leila also notices the “Women As Non-Human thread in the book.”)

The Chocolate War, Chapters 29 – 39 at Bookshelves of Doom (added 5/20): “Now I’m all emotionally drained and busted. I need a nap. And maybe some ice cream.

And I realized I omitted my own posts, so how can this be a real round up? Added 5/20

Chapters One to Ten.

Chapters Eleven to Twenty.

Chapters Twenty One to Thirty.

Chapters Thirty One to Thirty Nine.

My Review.

My Wrap Up.

This is War . . . Chocolate War

True confession:

I have never read The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier.

Or, if I have, I’ve forgotten it. Also? Sometimes I get it confused with another book I haven’t read, A Separate Peace by John Knowles.

I’ll give you all a moment to recover from that.

Back? You OK? Need a glass of water?

Talking about this with Kelly Jensen of Stacked and Leila Roy of Bookshelves of Doom led to the obvious:

I needed to share my secret shame with the world, and I needed to fix it and finally read The Chocolate War.

And as long as we were going to do this, why not make it a thing?

So, it’s now a thing, with a graphic and everything!

Come join The Chocolate War : A Read & Blog Along from May 12 to May 19. Of course, there is a hashtag: #ChocWarRA

I’m still not sure what exactly I’ll be doing that week. Perhaps my chapter by chapter reader’s response, like I did with Frankenstein? Maybe a review of The Chocolate War and it’s sequel, Beyond the Chocolate War? Maybe a review of the 1988 film, which stars the other guy from Weird Science.

Join us! Pretty much, pick anything something how related to The Chocolate War. Like me, read it for the first time; or reread it and see if it’s what you remember. Of maybe look at books that reference The Chocolate War, like Leslie Stella’s Permanent Record. You get the idea.

Kelly and Leila are also blogging about this. This is open to everyone; hopefully this post is early enough to give you time to read the blog and plan a post. We’ll also have posts that you can leave a comment to link to your posts.

Hope to see your posts in May!