The Chocolate War
Ember (Children’s book division of Random House, Inc.), 1974
An ALA Best Books for Young Adults, A School Library Journal Best Books of the Year, A Kirkus Reviews Choice, A New York Times Outstanding Books of the Year
The genre of Cormier’s The Chocolate War is young adult problem fiction. The setting is suburban where most of the activity takes place at an all-boys private school. Identifying the protagonist is difficult. I wanted to say Jerry Renault is the protagonist because he shows the noblest qualities, but since the definition of protagonist does not include positive characteristics, you could also say that Archie is the protagonist. Jerry and Archie are opposites. Jerry is a humble 14 year old trying to find is place in the world. Archie is the intellectual leader of The Vigil, a gang who conducts pranks, and also gets used by the school leadership to make a Chocolate Sale fundraiser successful.
The character who would appeal to the YAL reader most is Jerry. Between home and school, Jerry is trying to figure out who he will be. He sees the boring repetition of his father’s life at home after his mother passes and he decides, as many teens do, not to become his father.
At school he is assigned a task by Archie to refuse to sell chocolate for 10 days. This prank infuriates the acting headmaster Leon. Leon puts up with the task as part of the price of having The Vigil back the chocolate sale. When the ten days is up, Jerry continues to refuse to sell. At first he doesn’t know why, but he slowly figures out the meaning of T.S. Eliot’s words, “Do I dare disturb the universe,” and he decides he does dare. He becomes the antagonist to Archie and Leon, his influence begins to kill the sales of chocolate as well as the respect his classmates have for The Vigil.
Some YAL readers will find the plot refreshing because it is unexpected. Some, like me, will find it annoying and incomplete. Either way, the characters are rich and believable. While there are a great many questions left unanswered by this book, the biggest question I have, is why did the author include a small story about a boy named Tubs? The boy appears out of nowhere; struggles to sell chocolate so he can buy his girlfriend a present instead of giving the money back to the school; then disappears again. It was like a short story in the story. It could have easily been left out and the reader would never know anything was missing. Why is it there?