What's the worst thing about having your kids participate in activities like cheerleading and girl scouts? Yep, the darn cookie and chocolate and whatever-else fundraising sales. You want to help out the team or organization – heck, you want to help your child! But I always feel uncomfortable putting a sign-up out at work, especially if I'm not the first one. I've had employers who've made it easier and banned such things, but that doesn't help the kids. I guess they ought to go door-to-door and do the work themselves, but honestly, I'm not comfortable with that either and I'd rather just write a check and be done with it.
But take that amusing situation and superimpose it over a not-so-amusing story of intimidation and mob mentality, and you've got the idea behind Robert Cormier's gritty 1974 novel The Chocolate War. Jerry Renault attends an all-boys Catholic school where the chocolate fund-raiser is practically a sacred tradition. And when Jerry refuses to sell the chocolates, he runs up against Brother Leon, the vice-principal, as well as Archie Costello, the manipulative leader behind a semi-secret student society called the Vigils.
The Chocolate War
is one of those books that's either praised for it's exploration of intimidation in social groups or challenged and banned for it's graphic language and portrayals of disturbing and sexist behavior by the boys – there's frequent talk of sex and the boys sexually objectify all women. Sure, it's thought-provoking, and there's some interesting ideas and parallels going on – kind of like Lord of the Flies at a religious high school that's struggling economically.
But while I found interesting and thoughtful aspects to the story, I wasn't impressed at all with the book. First of all, the characters seem mostly unrealistic. You've got kids pulling psychological strings and behaving in ways that I found completely unbelievable (some of the violence, however, is frighteningly believable). I think Archie is 17 but he acts like a much older and smarter adult with a sickeningly sadistic streak. And Brother Leon was another disturbing character – although, from what I could gather, the author was NOT anti-Catholic – quite the opposite, in fact. But the worst is the language, and I'm not referring to the frequent profanity (although that's bad enough). It's written with the "hard-boiled" style of the noir private detective stories – and the reader in the audio version really played it up. Telephones "rupture the night" and dial-tones "explode" in your ear. Characters always "thrust" themselves out of bed, usually with a "cold, hard ball of fury in [their] chest." It's so over-the-top ridiculous that it made it even harder to take the story seriously.
So, yeah – it's kind of interesting and it made me think a bit, but it's certainly not something I'd recommend to kids. I probably wouldn't even recommend it to adults.