The Chocolate War
Author: Robert Cormier
Publisher: Pantheon Books
Publication Date: 1974
Lexile Level: 820
The Chocolate War is not only one of the most challenged books of all time, but it is often required reading for middle or high schoolers. I never had to read it as a teen, so I decided to pick it up now. A lot of books that have been around this long have issues, so I wasn’t expecting it to blow me away. But I also wasn’t expecting to hate it.
The story takes place in a boys’ private Catholic school. The time frame is a touch ambiguous, but seems to be based in the 1960s. A secret society known as the Vigils has an iron fist over the school, summoning students for “assignments”—typically pranks against the Brothers who run the school.
During the yearly chocolate sale, a freshman is singled out by the Vigil to refuse to sell. It turns into a revolt, with a torturous teacher, rebellious students, and the society of the school slowly unraveling.
To the book’s credit, it doesn’t feel dated. The clues to the book’s time period are subtle, so it does have an air of timelessness to it. And that’s one of the only good things I can say about the book.
The characters are flat. There are so many names thrown at the reader that it’s hard to keep them straight. Only a few are given any amount of characterization. Which is a shame, because the ones who are given some character are fascinating. I would love to learn more of Archie, Brother Leon, and Jerry. There is clearly a deeper story here than what we see on the page.
The structure of the story is well done, building tension and suspense. Unfortunately, every time you get a hint of something deeper, the story backs away from it. We’re hinted at motivations for characters, but it’s never followed through on.
All of the characters are male—which I don’t have a problem with. However, the handful of times females are featured, it is as objects. One of the boys even describes watching a girl as “rape by eyeball.” When another character’s mother is talking, he describes how he’s trained himself to hear nothing by gibberish. When Jerry brings himself to call up a girl he’s seen on the bus (seen, never spoken to) he is put off by her use of the work “crap.” It ruins his perception of her, and he hangs up. Altogether, these instances read as deeply misogynistic, and they do nothing to serve the overall story.
Formatting also hurts the story. There are chapters where we jump from one group of characters to another with nothing to separate the scenes. A break in the text would go a long way to keep the reader from getting confused.
If the story followed one character, such as Jerry, and stuck with them, a lot of the problems with the narrative would solve themselves. It would even work with an alternating narrative between Jerry and Archie (or another character). There is a good, even great story, trying to get out in this novel. But too many ideas are tossed around (like Obie’s desire for revenge, or Leon’s money troubles) that are dropped without any sort of revolution.
Final verdict: unless you have to read this one, stay away. There are better stories out there. Maybe try Lord of the Flies instead.
Trigger warnings: violence, masturbation