Robert Cormier comments, in the foreword of the edition of The Chocolate War I read, that it took a while to find a publisher for this book. Editors considered it too violent, too depressing for young adults to be reading. One publishing house did offer to take it — if he changed the ending. He passed. I think that was a wise choice; without the realism those qualities give the book, it would be difficult to create interest in the characters and their actions. As it is, The Chocolate War provides insight into the lives of teenage boys that is rarely provided.
The book follows many boys who attend a Catholic prep school in 1970s New England. The hero is Jerry Renault, a freshman who has recently lost his mother, but we get the chance to be in many students’ heads, which is a big plus. The reader can see what runs through the minds of a lot of different teenage boys, providing for a greater understanding of the events that occur, and why they had to happen that way.
In fact, I would say that Cormier has a gift for giving us wonderfully nuanced views of the boys. Jerry, after seeing a girl who interests him, calls her house and talks to her (in a very cringe-worthy way) — and gets stunned and disappointed to hear her say the word “crap.” It puts some of his following behavior into a very interesting light. He is aware and mature enough to be able to understand some of what other people do and say, but remains naive about many facets of life. He doesn’t even know his own heart sometimes. Such is what leads him to inexplicably continue to refuse to sell chocolate for the school, despite his inaction raising his instructor’s ire and leads to increasing problems between him and the other students — especially the boys who secretly control a lot of the actions younger and weaker students take.
One place where the book could have been improved, however, is in the treatment of the adults in Jerry’s life. Several are marginal characters, but at least three hold important places in the plot. Perhaps because it is a book that has young adults in mind as its primary audience, the adults are mainly a mystery — we’re only allowed to guess at motivations and what the men actually know. It would be intriguing to be able to sit in their shoes for a while and learn why they behaved in the ways they did. I will say, though, that I think Jerry’s father was purposely crafted this way; he is a man unengaged in his son’s life. He’s not supposed to be knowable, since he doesn’t know.
Cormier’s book also employs some language that dates it. That might be a turn-off for more feckless teenage readers, which is sad for two reasons. The first one is that they will miss a truly engaging and honest story. The second is perhaps even more important than enjoying this particular book: learning to read a variety of writing styles from all sorts of time periods is one part of learning to be well-rounded, in reading, thinking, and living.
The ending, I think, is one of the best I’ve seen in a young adult novel. It doesn’t come to an entirely happy ending — in fact, it’s depressingly realistic. Misbehavior goes unpunished. Jerry isn’t able to reach an agreement with the other boys at school. Almost the entirety of the student population is shown to be like bloodthirsty sheep, easily put in line and most likely grateful that it isn’t them who are the targets of the bullies’ anger.
There are a couple of moments of heroic behavior. I would argue that Jerry’s ability to stand up for himself, no matter what the other students put him through, makes him admirable. His friend, the Goober, has a strong sense of loyalty and eventually is able to do some amount of rescuing of Jerry when he cannot stand up for himself in the end. There is a teacher without integrity or a sense of caring for his students, but there is also another who comes to Jerry’s aid during a critical point.
The Chocolate Wars is a superb piece of young adult fiction. I would recommend it for teenagers, especially boys. I suspect that many will be able to identify with at least some of what goes on — after all, bullying is an eternal issue. Cormier crafted an insightful, quick read, suitable for those of us who are walking the same halls as these boys, and also those of us who remember being these boys.