When I considered the title “The Chocolate War” while scanning the list of banned books to decide what would get tackled next, I never for a minute considered “war” to be meant in the gravest of senses. When paired with something as lovely as chocolate how could one ever consider this to be a devastating book, an earth shaking testimony to the plight of the individual? Should you go out and read this book after the review then you can at least go forth with the knowledge that I warned you.
The premise is simple, a freshman at Trinity High School (Catholic, private, all boys’ school) refuses to take part in the “voluntary” sale of chocolates that is the school’s traditional fundraiser. Each day he is asked how many boxes of chocolate he will take to sell and every day he responds with “none”. A secret society within the school, The Vigils, are called in to help when sales start waning; the investment of the group operating outside the rule of the school, but with its knowledge, becomes intense as do its actions to maintain the fear of the student body.
Jerry Renault is the main character and the only one who will say “no” to the intimidation of the school and The Vigils. Let me say that again: He is the only one who says no. There is no fuss about this on his part, no massive speeches or statements he’s putting forth other than his individual right to simply not take part in what is purported to be a voluntary activity. Then he said no to the bullies who told him to say yes. When he was jumped by a gang and beaten bloody, he still said no. When the phone calls came in the middle of the night, that no stayed upon his lips in his firm and quiet voice. His “no” made him a pariah and then a victim of the herd of people who did not have the courage to do so for themselves, who felt Jerry saying no was a smear against them, that he was holding himself superior.
The revelation Jerry experiences at the end had me wanting to cry and scream my frustrations to the world, “How dare you diminish the individual; how dare the horde, the animals, declare themselves master, punisher, and arbiter of their disease ridden justice upon a person!” Alas, it’s a scream I feel all too frequently and will dedicate an entire post to at a later time. [Maybe.]
Take this excerpt from a classroom lesson given by Brother Leon, the man behind The Vigils’ investment in the chocolate sale:
“Well, Bailey?” From Leon at the window, still intent on the world outside.
“I don’t cheat, Brother Leon,” Bailey said, a surge of strength in his voice, like he was taking a last stand.
“Then how do you account for all those A’s?”
“I don’t know.”
Brother Leon whirled around. “Are you perfect, Baily? All those A’s- that implies perfection. Is that the answer, Bailey?”
For the first time, Bailey looked at the class itself, in mute appeal, like something wounded, lost abandoned.
“Only God is perfect, Bailey.”
Jerry’s neck began to hurt. And his lungs burned. He realized he’d been holding his breath. He gulped air, carefully, not wanting to move a muscle. He wished he was invisible. He wished he wasn’t here in the classroom. He wanted to be out on the football field, fading back, looking for a receiver.
“Do you compare yourself with God, Bailey?”
Cut it out, Brother, cut it out, Jerry cried silently.
“If God is perfect and you are perfect, Bailey, does that suggest something to you?”
Bailey didn’t answer, eyes wide in disbelief. The class was utterly silent. Jerry could hear the hum of the electric clock0he’d never realized before that electric clocks hummed.
“The other alternative, Bailey is that you are not perfect And, of course, you’re not.” Leon’s voice softened. “I know you wouldn’t consider anything so sacrilegious.”
“That’s right, Brother Leon,” Bailey said, relieved.
“Which leaves us with only one conclusion,” Leon said, his voice bright and triumphant, as if he had made an important discovery. “You cheat!”
All the above dialogue, the false accusations led to this lesson:
“You poor fools,” he [Brother Leon] said. “You idiots. Do you know who’s the best one here? The bravest of all?” He placed his hand on Bailey’s shoulder. “Gregory Bailey, that’s who. He denied cheating. He stood up to my accusations. He stood his ground! But you, gentlemen, you sat there and enjoyed yourselves. And those of you who didn’t enjoy yourselves allowed it to happen, allowed me to proceed. You turned this classroom into Nazi Germany for a few moments.”
The lessons are hard hitting and close to home as we look upon our society today and forever see the defense and stalwart championing of the collective, while the outliers are viewed as necessary and sometimes trivial collateral damage. This book demonstrates it all, a parable that, along side The Giver, is absolutely vital for people to read. Its placement on the list of most frequently challenged books is of no surprise to me given how conformity is used for the measure of good so often in our culture (or at least NOT conforming being viewed as a bad thing worthy of vitriol and resentment); that it is on the list is again a testament to something far more malevolent than simply a concern over the numerous mentions of masturbation by adolescent males within the pages. One can not expect children to appreciate diversity in people unless attention to the individual and all the differences that might include is given. That Cormier managed such a fete in the pages of his work is to be commended; a grave reminder that it matters not only what a person looks like as to how they are categorized, but all too often it is simply because they choose something different.