Freedom to Read Week is still on and March 1st is the night my Banned Book club is getting together to discuss the merits of The Chocolate War. I hadn’t read it before and in case you haven’t either, here’s the gist.
Jerry Renault goes to a Christian prep school. His mother recently died and he’s kind of out of sorts over that but trying to move ahead into the school year in spite of it, taking up football, going to class, hanging out with friends. The trouble is, there’s another group of kids at the school, a semi-secretive club called the Vigils, and they like to pick people to pick on and give them insane tasks to do at the school to boost their popularity — or not.. it’s hard to tell what Archie’s motivations are when he plans this shit.
One major classroom stunt results in a teacher having a nervous breakdown but it’s the other major one that gives the book its title. Jerry is asked to refuse to voluntarily sell chocolates like all the other boys in school but is not allowed to tell anyone the reason why. The kids figure out it’s an Archie-inspired prank, of course, but when the tenth day of this refusal rolls around and Jerry still says no, other kids wind up wondering why they’re selling the stuff, too, and the fund- raising comes to a bit of a standstill.
Unfortunately, Brother Leon bought way more chocolate for the sale than he should have and used money he wasn’t supposed to use in order to buy it. Archie learns of this and since he already promised Leon that the Vigil will help him sell that crap, he’s committed to figuring out how to get it all sold even as more and more boys quit trying.
Archie is a schemer and a manipulator who flourishes only when he can dominate others so he’s become adept at knowing what buttons to push to get people to do what he wants. For example, he lies about having a picture of Janza in the can and promises to give him that non-existent picture if he’ll beat the crap out of Jerry. Janza probably would have done it anyway but there’s nothing like a little extra incentive. After Janza and his gang work him over, Archie calls him wondering if he’d like a way to get even with Janza and everyone else who harassed him over the chocolate thing. Jerry stupidly agrees and winds up in a boxing ring with Janza where the punches are called by raffle tickets bought by their classmates. Whichever kid writes the ticket that results in a win will win $100 and last of the chocolate.
The book ends somewhat abruptly. Jerry punches Janza a good one in the chest and although he feels triumphant, he suddenly realizes he’s just as much an animal as Janza and the other boys screaming for blood around the ring. He belatedly realizes that Archie led him right into it like a Judas goat. Janza retaliates with more than a dozen uncalled-for punches before the lights go out for everyone. It turns out the event wasn’t as secret as Archie originally claimed it was. Brother Leon had been invited to watch because Archie thought he’d enjoy it. The resulting noise is what drew Brother Jacques to the field and he’s the one who flipped the breaker, stopping the fight in its tracks.
Jerry comes out of the whole experience wishing he hadn’t disturbed the universe, wishing he’d just followed orders in the first place. He thinks he should have sold the damn chocolates after the 10th day like he was supposed to and winds up concluding that taking a stand is the quickest way for someone to kick your legs out from under you. Don’t take a stand, ever. “Otherwise they’ll murder you.” (p.248)
Archie comes out of the whole experience smelling like roses. They had chocolates to sell and they sold them. Brother Leon doesn’t penalize him for anything that went on and Archie realizes the Vigils are completely accepted and won’t need to be kept in the shadows so long as Leon remains in charge.
“What a great year it was going to be.” (p.250)
Now, if these three kids were the only ones who had a voice in the book, this would be a very shitty book with no redeeming qualities. Fortunately, Cormier spent just as much time with chapters focused on other kids and their reactions to what Archie and Jerry were doing. There’s Carter who’s supposed to be leader of the Vigils and hates what Archie uses it for. There’s Obie who’s in Archie’s inner circle but yearns for him to fail at some point, even though that point never seems to come. There’s also Jerry’s friend, Goober, who pities what Jerry’s going through and stops selling chocolates out of quiet protest. Then he discovers the Vigils are going to tell everyone he sold all of his, how great he is for school spirit and he finds himself wishing he had the balls to tell the truth but stays quiet.
The book is all about bullying and how people respond to peer pressure in all its many guises. Some do a good job, some don’t. Some can shrug off pressures put on them by friends and teachers, others buckle and then hate themselves for it.
I think we’ll get some interesting discussions going about it. There are some homosexuality themes in this (that’s what Janza uses to get under Jerry’s skin) and authority issues and abuse and selfishness and motivations and whatever all. It ought to be a good time. I might write more about that after the meeting.