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Her Fine Eyes

Caustic reviews of YA books I adore. 

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The Chocolate War

The Chocolate War - Robert Cormier
***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
One-sentence summary: Cormier himself wrote my one-sentence summary when he was asked whether the book sends the depressing message that even savvy teens can't outwit the system and he said, "They can buck it, but they can't beat it. The terrible thing is not to try."
I'm a new Cormier fangirl. Brilliant book! Brilliant writer! And I'm so glad I listened to it on audiobook because I got an unexpected bonus: Cormier gave an introduction to the piece, talking about his inspiration for the story, his growth as a YA writer, his own teenage boys, etc. And he sounded like every member of my extended family, in every way! Not just the thick accent, but the tone and vocal tics, the choice of words, the self-effacing attitude. I smiled through the whole introduction--I would have loved the man in real life. (My mom and dad went to the girls' and boys' Catholic high schools in their New England neighborhood, and I saw everyone they grew up with in this book.)
I loved the shifting points of view, and how the reader gets moments to empathize with the situation and motivation of each character--even the antagonists, who are really just tools of the system themselves. It's so fascinating to see how embedded the kids are without realizing it, how each one is somewhat blind both to how he's a cog in the machinery and to how he (or they all) might break free, which is of course how and why the machine persists.
So because it's me, I still had questions. (And all of them might have been answered with a slightly longer book, but then the simplicity of this novel could easily have been lost.)
1. The biggest issue for me, and possibly my only real critique, is that I found it less than perfectly motivated why Jerry would have agreed to the fight with Emile Janza at the end. Archie is the one who needs this fight, not Jerry, not Janza, not the Vigils, not even Leon, so motivating Jerry and Janza is crucial. Archie supposedly cleverly pitches it as a chance for revenge, and implies it will be carefully arranged and a clean fight, but we didn't really see Jerry building up to wanting revenge. Cormier tried to ratchet up incidents to make us believe it of him (his dad becoming involved in the drama via the prank phone calls; being ostracized for a day and then pushed down the stairs; having his locker broken into), but as a character Jerry really didn't show any desire for vengeance, because he was depicted as pretty damn strong the whole book and willing to be a loner. He was not devastated by the stolen watercolor assignment, for instance, he was almost resigned. It seemed like it would actually be much more in character for him to say, "I don't want revenge, Archie. The chocolate sale is over, you got what you want, Leon got what he wanted, I'm going back to my old life." Now granted, the ostracizing and the phone calls and the destroyed sneakers in his locker (and the beating by Emile's junior thugs) are all proof that Archie might never let him rest, so you could argue he has to end it one way or another, but that's not at all how Jerry thinks it over when he hears the proposition--he accepts it at face value. When he steps in the "ring" he acknowledges to himself (when his first blow is assigned through the raffle) that he's not a fighter, and surely he knew that ahead of time--surely he knew that when Archie called him.
Emile's motivation was a bit weak, too; is it only that there were starting to be rumors that he had to call the junior thugs because he couldn't beat up Renault on his own? Is it the lingering question of the existence of the photograph showing him masturbating? Well, hmm, worrying about his thug reputation is slightly ludicrous given that Emile is a fighter (on the boxing team) and Jerry is a skinny freshman, and the photograph has been hanging over his head for some time now.
2. Jerry's motivation to continue to refuse to sell the chocolates after his Assignment ends is beautifully subtle, and I'm struggling with whether it's verging on being too much so. I liked the fact that he surprised himself by continuing to say no--it was believable that even he is not sure why he's doing it at first. We, the readers, know that he has been having existential questions about life and death--that he has been seeing the drabness of his father's routine-filled, empty life and wondering whether there's more. So we can understand that without even really knowing it he has urge to shake things up, to lead a purposeful life that questions the validity of the existing power structure in his world (the hippies chiding him for being square and for missing everything but the bus contribute wonderfully to that message). But he never quite makes the connection to that message himself internally, until the very end, when he's too battered to speak but wants to tell the Goober not to disturb the universe. I thought a more visible, gradual evolution in thought to that moment might have helped (but I'm still not sure). As it is, he appears stubborn but maybe without enough evolving philosophy behind the stubbornness.
Jerry is giving in when he wants to tell Goober not to disturb the universe--and he's acknowledging to himself that it's pointless to resist. It's one of the first times that he suspects that there might have been a principle behind his resistance, too (I'll have to go back and look at the exact language to support this). But Cormier crams it all into the same moment--Jerry's understanding that he was resisting for a reason, and also his realization that resistance is futile. I wanted to see Jerry understand sooner in the book that his underlying principle, his personal need to resist, stemmed from watching his dad's empty life--that this is the reason he chose the poster for his locker--and to see the connection that in order to fully live after his mom's death, he had to take risks and shake up his world. If I had been Cormier's editor (such hubris!) I'd encourage him to make Jerry continue to resist beyond the scope of the Assignment because now the resistance means something to him. That would have made his loss of will so much more profound in the end, when he wants to tell Goober to play by the rules of the system, because giving in is giving up on his new life--it's capitulating to an empty life like his dad's. I think this is what Cormier wanted to convey. I just think that by not showing Jerry make the connection earlier, that final moment lost some power. 
The reason I struggle with whether this is a valid criticism is that it's perhaps more believable that a kid wouldn't quite connect the dots of his own philosophical development, that he might be influenced into actions that he can't articulate, and that he might see the connection all at once, as he does in the book. It's just that in that case, I think it would have been even more of a revelation to him while he's delirious in Goober's arms--he would have noticed that he was noticing, if you know what I mean. 
3. I also wanted more of Goubert, and possibly Brother Jacques. The Goober is different from every other kid who is complicit with the system (The Vigils, Archie, all the students who seem to carry out their assignments without being debilitated by the moral repercussions). Goubert represents any kid who is disgusted by the corruption and the power struggle of his small world. He wants to change it but he's afraid of getting involved and takes stands against it that prove to be largely ineffectual (pulling out of sports teams, not selling his remaining 23 boxes of chocolates, having the urge to just hunker down until graduation).
Why do I want to see more? Well, there's largely a herd mentality in the book--when the boys are sympathetic with Jerry their own sales plummet, and then they're just as easily roused into enthusiasm for the sale (and into ostracizing Jerry) when the Vigils pull out the stops to sell the chocolates themselves--and I think Goober should be the link to understanding how that herd happens. I wondered whether he needed to be punished for even his minor opting-out, because the Vigils would know that without that sort of check the system would break down. They do deliberately obviate his unseen "stand" by selling his chocolates for him, but if you think about it, he'd have to eventually hand the physical candies over to them to fulfill the sale, which is a humiliation we maybe should have seen happen. Anyway, his is a perspective on futility that I wanted to see more of.
Similarly, Brother Jacques is someone in the school hierarchy who still has some morals (but hasn't been defeated yet like Brother Eugene of Room 19) and I wanted to see a tiny bit more crushing of his spirit. Obviously this is the beginning of his emasculation--he was properly chastising Archie until Leon intervened--but such entrenched school corruption requires there to be no reasonable adult present, along with the merely clueless adults like the football coach. This is not a deadly criticism, though, because the hierarchy of the school and the chocolate sale are largely metaphors for entrenched power and how duty can become something you're not allowed to question--the actual characters behind power and conformity are maybe not as important as just the idea of them. A little hint at how the adult system perpetuated itself would have pleased me, though, along with why the adults tolerated or even subtly condoned the Vigils. (This book was also written in an era when YA novels were briefer in length. It's only 267 pages. Today it would be a hundred pages longer!) 
It's still awesome. In general, nothing is entirely missing, which is one of the great achievements of this novel--complex ideas are presented in a pretty spare form. There are small pieces that all add up to the whole, even when they're not deliberately spelled out. For instance, when Jerry dares to disturb the universe by calling Ellen Barrett on the phone, he is shot down by reality, in a lovely foreshadowing of the ending. And even though almost everyone got what he wanted (Leon got the sales and acclaim, Carter was able to say the Vigils were back on top, Obie even got to see Archie stumble), Cormier made sure that Archie wanted to regain his stature as the real leader of the Vigils, so that he had an interest in punishing Jerry. Masterful! All the threads are in place in this novel. And I far prefer to err on the side of not hitting readers over the head when an author knows the message, so I'm inclined to say that even with my handful of questions about the strength of a couple of these threads, this book is practically perfect in every way.