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Book Review: The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier (4/5)

11 Oct

This was a book that came up in another book and has been lingering on my TBR for a while. It’s been a while since I read a YA and I was looking forward to it! Early on, I realized I’d read it before but it must have been almost 20 years and I couldn’t remember how it ended so I pressed on to see what would happen.


Cover image via Amazon

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

Summary from Goodreads:

Jerry Renault ponders the question on the poster in his locker: Do I dare disturb the universe? Refusing to sell chocolates in the annual Trinity school fund-raiser may not seem like a radical thing to do. But when Jerry challenges a secret school society called The Vigils, his defiant act turns into an all-out war. Now the only question is: Who will survive?

I liked 95% of this book. It was a good YA story, talking about bullying and conformity and real issues facing teens while not holding back punches. Characters were dishonest, crude, vulgar, and vulnerable. The topic was a little dated, but still holds true. Schools are often doing fundraising sales so the main focus of the book is still something children can relate to. Bullying will, unfortunately, probably never go away. I can see why this book has stood the test of time but wonder if a more modern take will soon replace it.

There were a lot of characters in this book and I had trouble keeping them straight many times (I had to look up a character list to refresh my memory before writing this section). All of them were very different, though, and I felt they represented a good spectrum of high school students. I liked that we got to hear from students not directly involved in the conflict so we’d see their opinions on Jerry and the sale, the Vigils, and the Brothers running the school. Most of the characters were pretty multidimensional as well, though very few were dynamic throughout the book.

At first, I had trouble remembering that Goober and Jerry were different people. It mostly stemmed from not realizing there were going to be so many narrators. Once I wrapped my mind around that, I liked Goober a lot as a character. He’s very quiet but he’s an independent thinker and he tries to live up to principles he holds. He as too scared to speak up about them, but he made some decisions that went along with what he believed. He was a good friend for Jerry, even if Jerry didn’t want to talk to him about what he was going through.

There was a little bit in each boy that was relatable. Parts of this book reminded me of my middle and high school experiences, in good ways and bad. We didn’t have a secret bullying group, but there were in-groups that you wanted to be a part of and other groups you wanted to avoid. There was peer pressure and teachers you didn’t think gave you a fair chance. It was more so the setting and tone that I related to than an individual character.


Robert Cormier Image via Penguin Random House

Jerry’s narrations about his home life really stood out to me. The obvious depression in his home and how much Jerry wanted to help his father was heartbreaking. The way the two of them interacted and how walled off Jerry let himself become to ‘protect’ his father was really moving. I think teens do this a lot more than is talked about and I’m glad this book addressed it.

The ending of the book really upset me. I didn’t feel like there was any resolution. After the big showdown, nothing seemed to be changing at all. No one seemed to change and it felt like the entire cycle was about to repeat itself. I’m not saying that it needed to wrap up with a neat little bow, but I would have liked to see something more dynamic, something changed as a result. It seemed the characters were back at Square One and there could be a sequel about the next fundraising sale that would play out in the same way.

The audiobook was narrated by Frank Muller. I liked his inflections and tones, but I thought it was hard to tell his character’s voices apart and that contributed to my confusion early in the book. He did a good job of building tension with the characters and the big scenes and I liked his pacing, especially with Brother Leon’s scenes.

Bullying is a big problem for youth. It was something I experienced and witnessed in school and it’s likely my children will face it as well. This book addresses the different ways it can manifest and some of the things that can be done to combat it and to speak up. Goober and Obie have a lot of chances to do something and don’t take them. Brother Leon turns a blind eye when he has the power to stop things. No one did anything, so nothing was resolved. We have to empower people to speak up when there’s a problem and react to address it when it happens.

Writer’s Takeaway: Cormier’s depiction of high school seemed very real to me. The boys’ interest in girls was a nice touch. It wasn’t the focus of the book in any way, but a part of their lives that made it seem more realistic. The distrust of the teachers is another thing I remember from my school days that felt very real. The author read a note before the book talking about how he drew inspiration from his son when writing. I hope that his son was open and honest with him about school, which provided this rich detail. I believe it’s those touches that helped this book stand the test of time.

An enjoyable book with a slightly disappointing end. Four out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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