Book Review: The Chocolate War

It is said that good writing is the context which a writer creates and makes the readers think.

Going by this famous quote, The Chocolate War is not only a good, but an exemplary piece of writing. It not only makes the reader think but also sets a stage for him/her to be able to clearly recognise right from wrong, good from evil, and the consequences and repercussions of standing by one’s beliefs in a particular scenario, like the school in this book. But it stands true to every phase and situation in life. Calling it an analogy to society, as such, will not be wrong.

the-chocolate-warWritten by Robert Cormier and first published in 1974, The Chocolate War remains the most discussed, analysed, debated and criticised book by Cormier and has been frequently labelled controversial and provocative. It has been banned in some parts of the world for it’s mature content, language and violence, but is equally supported by critics and taught in schools in other parts of the world.

The story is set at Trinity, an all-boys Catholic school where an annual chocolate sale is held to raise funds for the school. Brother Leon, the evil Headmaster at Trinity, doubles the number of chocolate boxes to be sold and also the price, clearly burdening the unassuming students. For this he cleverly seeks help from Archie Costello, the ‘Assigner’ with The Vigils, an underground student gang/group operating within the school in a clandestine manner. The Vigils intimidate the students and terrorise them into doing ‘tasks’ assigned by them. The protagonist Jerry Renault is a 14-year old freshman at Trinity who has recently lost his mother. Jerry refuses to sell chocolates for the annual sale and that sets into motion a chain of events, all unexpected and unusual for the school. How Jerry stands up to his beliefs, continues to refuse the sale of chocolates despite being bullied and harassed, how the complicated behaviour of students and Brothers at Trinity unfold layer after layer following this rebellious act from Jerry form the body of the book.

A line by T.S. Eliot has been quoted in the book. It’s on Jerry’s poster and he ponders over it:

Dare I disturb the universe ?

And Jerry does dare to disturb the universe around him.

The characters in the book are real and believable. The setting, at several places, will send waves of nostalgia to all those who have studied in Catholic convents, like it did to me. The subject is strong and the way it is handled is commendable. In simple language, Cormier succeeds in laying out the setting, the character sketches of boys and the brothers at Trinity and their interactions demanding attention to various teen issues like bullying, gang-formations in schools, harassment by teachers and fellow students along with corruption at school level and society at large.  Almost all characters are well etched. The layout is crisp and doesn’t bore at any level. The attention to detail is awe-inspiring. What I did not like in the book was the eventual outcome.

Spoiler Alert : The Chocolate War is brutally realistic and just like it happens in real life, Jerry’s efforts pass unrewarded, evil and mean characters get away with what they have been doing and remain unpunished at the end and the whole drama that makes the reader think and take a stand, falls apart when one analyses it from Jerry’s eye. His final words to his best friend, asking him to do as he is told to do by others, are depressing.

Call me a dreamer but I love happy endings in fiction. The ones where goodness overcomes the evil and eventually it’s the truth and courage that prevails. I don’t get it always, like in this book ! So reality remains as such and is not diluted by fantasies of fiction in the book. Overall it was an engaging and gripping read. Interesting read, not only for teens but for all ages and classes.

Mamta Batra

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This is what  Mamta has to say about herself and her experience of writing this book review:

I am Dermatologist by profession and an avid reader, movie-buff and traveller by passion. I’ve always been a part of Literary Clubs at school and college. Thankfully, now I found #TSBC.  

Though I have read numerous reviews and books, I don’t do reviews usually. This was something that I did for the #TSBC Challenge. I don’t know any rules or process of book reviewing; I just wrote what I felt ! This was my first Robert Cormier book and I profusely thank #TSBC for assigning this book to me. The #TSBCChallenge is an amazing initiative and I’m looking forward to more.  

Thank you, Mamta for taking up the #TSBC Challenge. This badge is for you 🙂

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