No sugar-coating here

Laurel Leaf, 272pp. 9780440944591

What I remembered about The Chocolate War from back in the day: a bad taste in my mouth, and an uneasiness that followed me around for days.  Bullies, and some kind of secret society.

Re-reading it brought to mind the words of Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter: “A hero cannot be a hero unless in a heroic world.”  What could Hawthorne have meant by this?  Because Cormier’s dark world of predators and prey is anything but heroic, yet Jerry Renault is definitely a hero.  He faces down fear, stands his ground; others are warmed by his flame enough to voice their own, smaller, defiances.

Come to think of it, Hawthorne and Cormier are up to something remarkably similar in their explorations of heroism-where-none-is-possible.  Trinity School under the Vigils’ stranglehold is a lot like Hester Prynne’s Puritan village.  Jerry’s refusal to sell the chocolates echoes Hester’s stoical silence under the public shaming she endures. Tenaciousness beyond all reasonable expectations, and without the vindication of a happy ending—that seems to be the formula, in these books.

Not an easy pill to swallow, for YA readers or otherwise.  But there’s no denying that Jerry’s scars, like Hester’s red A, have left a lasting impression on fiction.

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