Teen Wars : The Young Adult Fiction of Robert Cormier

By Cheaney, J. B. | The World and I, December 2001 | Go to article overview

Teen Wars : The Young Adult Fiction of Robert Cormier


Cheaney, J. B., The World and I


J.B. Cheaney is a freelance writer living in the Ozarks of Missouri. She is the author of The Playmaker (Random House).

They were a respectable family, a nice family: father, mother, and four children, living comfortably in a small Massachusetts town. One afternoon in September, their teenage son brought home two shopping bags loaded with twenty-five boxes of chocolate candy. Oh boy, joked the family, another school fund-raiser! But the topic grew into a fairly serious dinner-table conversation, with ethical overtones. The father, a newspaper editor and freelance writer, summed up three valid choices: One, take a couple of weekends to pester the neighbors and relatives and sell as many boxes as possible. Two, talk your dad into buying all twenty-five boxes. Or three, take the chocolate boxes back to school and respectfully decline to participate in the sale. After all, it's a voluntary activity--what could they do? After thinking over these alternatives, the boy decided on the last.

Next morning, as usual, his father drove him to school and lingered to watch him go up the walk with those two shopping bags in hand. Then doubts began to surface: What if the headmaster pressures him? What if his peers resent him? What, the father wondered, am I letting him in for?

"Months later, a teenage boy lay broken under the glaring white lights of a football stadium. He had been brutally beaten, while the boys of his school cheered; now the stadium was empty and the only sound was the wail of an ambulance siren coming closer. Only one person remained with him, a friend who had stayed away until it was too late. The bleeding boy tried to explain that it was all a mistake. He'd stood up to the system but found the system unbeatable. So go ahead, he wanted to say: sell the chocolates, do whatever they tell you. Don't disturb the universe . . . "

What really happened to Peter Cormier was nothing so dramatic. He returned his shopping bags, respectfully declined to participate in the sale, and that was that. The chain of events that began with a refusal and ended with a savage beating unfolded within the mind of his journalist father, who began developing his ideas into a novel. He had written several novels and published three, all of which were out of print. This one would be different: After seeing the first two chapters, his agent Marilyn Marlow told him, "Bob, I think what you have here is a young adult novel."

Robert Cormier had never considered the young adult (YA) market, and the idea had little appeal at first. Even in the first two chapters, the language was pretty raw, the pacing relentless, the symbolism complex. He feared that making it suitable for readers his son's age (or even younger) would tame the heart out of it. Marlow reassured him: his job was to write the truth of the story as he saw it, and her job was to find a publisher. When the completed manuscript began making the rounds, one editor after another appreciated its impact but judged the overall work as too depressing. Some offered to buy the manuscript if Cormier would change the ending, but he refused. Eventually his agent found a publisher (Pantheon) who accepted the story as written. The Chocolate War was published in April 1974, with a dedication "to my son Peter."

It begins with a single-sentence paragraph: "They murdered him." The immediate context is high school football tryouts, where freshman Jerry Renault is getting pummeled by the rest of the team. But football is easy compared to Jerry's other extracurricular activities at Trinity High: placating the Vigils, the school's secret society, and avoiding Brother Leon, the acting headmaster. The two goals clash when the annual chocolate fund-raiser rolls around and Brother Leon commits the student body to selling double the usual quota. Archie Costello, de facto leader of the Vigils, orders Jerry to refuse to sell chocolate for ten days, as a way of exerting power over both the pliable freshman and the overambitious headmaster. …

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