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The Chocolate War    by Robert Cormier order for
Chocolate War
by Robert Cormier
Order:  USA  Can
Laurel Leaf, 1999 (1974)
Hardcover, Paperback, Audio

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Robert Cormier doesn't pull any punches in The Chocolate War, a tale of cruelty and its consequences amongst staff and students at a private school, Trinity High. The story has a powerful beginning - 'They murdered him' - which introduces freshman Jerry Renault trying out for the football team. He succeeds, despite a lean build, because he has guts and determination. He needs both, as the author does not make life easy for his young protagonist. Jerry has recently lost his mother to cancer, and soon is targeted by the school gang, the Vigils.

Early on, Jerry despises himself for 'thinking one thing and saying another, planning one thing and doing another - he had been Peter a thousand times and a thousand cocks had crowed in his lifetime', the beginning of a dangerous desire to do his own thing, symbolized by his locked poster's words ... 'Do I dare disturb the universe?' But Trinity High is a perilous place for the nonconformist. In the absence of the principal due to illness, the school is being run by the abusive and manipulative Brother Leon, who 'could hold your attention like a cobra' and enjoys playing psychological games.

The students are at the mercy of a well-entrenched gang, the Vigils, who hand out nasty 'assignments' to selected victims, amongst whom are Jerry and his friend Goober. Archie engineers the situations and picks victims, dazzling his peers with the audacity and humiliation quotient of the tasks he sets. One of them involves chocolates. You see, Brother Leon has a problem. On his own initiative, he has purchased 20,000 boxes of chocolates for a fundraising drive (this is twice the number sold the previous year) and now he needs the students to unload them for him. He seeks an unlikely alliance with Archie.

And then Jerry just says no - to chocolates - and keeps on saying it. Why does he do this? Why was he so determined to make the football team? It's hard to say, but Jerry has a strong core and he has finally decided to 'disturb the universe'. Problem is, the notion of opting out of the chocolate sale catches on, and Brother Leon pulls many strings to entangle the rebel. The Chocolate War is a tale a great deal more like Lord of the Flies than Harry Potter. Like the former, it takes a hard look at bullying and the mob behavior of adolescent boys. It's not a cheerful read but it is a powerful one, not to be missed.

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