Friday, February 27, 2015

Do I Dare Disturb The Universe?

The book I am rambling today is one of my random acquisitions.  I picked it up at my favorite used book store because I had remembered seeing it several times at my childhood library and it was only two bucks.  It had apparently fallen out into the trunk of my car where I forgot I had gotten and when I refound it I tossed it in my backpack to bring it inside.  It never made it inside because I started reading it instead and WOW good job me.  The book is The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier.  What was it about this book that got to me?  I'll tell you, but first, as always SPOILERS AHEAD!
The setting for this book is Trinity School.  A private, Catholic, high school set in a predominantly white middle class neighborhood.   While the book deals with many many characters, I'll stick with the biggest players to keep this synopsis manageable.  The main guy's we follow are Jerry Renault, a freshman who is desperate to get on the football team, Archie, the semi-sadistic "Assigner" of the schools secret society called the Vigils, and Brother Leon, a power hungry man who get's his change as the interim Head Master.  The basic story line center's around the school's annual chocolate sale.  Brother Leon takes a gamble by buying twice as much chocolate as in previous year's for twice the price.  In essence the boy's need to sell twice as much chocolate as in previous years, while
convincing people they worth the higher price.  To try and get ahead of the game Brother Leon recruits Archie to use the Vigils to get behind the sale.  The Vigils are the schools secret society that seems to solely exist to assign various pranks to the younger guys.  The Vigil's are pretty powerful and a kid has yet to defy them.  Archie and Leon have a bit of a power struggle, resulting in Archie assigning Jerry the task of refusing to sell chocolates for ten days.  Since the chocolate sale is technically voluntary, there is not a whole lot Brother Leon can do about it.  Once the ten days are up everybody expects Jerry to finally accept the chocolates and start selling them, but much to everybody's surprise (including Jerry's) he continues to refuse.  At first he is not sure why, only the phrase on the poster in his locker "Do I Dare Disturb the Universe" sparking any resonance, but he eventually decides he is sick of doing something, just because everybody else is, or it has always been done.  As time goes by, other students start to follow Jerry's example, also burned out by always being ruled over by the top dogs.  This puts Archie in the position of his precious Vigils no longer having the control over the school that they are used to.  Brother Leon is also in a perilous position as he over extended the schools finances to buy the chocolate.  Archie takes charge and turns Jerry from a hero to an outcast by selling all the chocolates and giving everybody else in the school credit, making it the cool thing again.  He also has Jerry intimidated and even physically hurt.  To reinstate his dominance, Archie organizes an event for students only where he raffles off the ability call the shots in a fight between Jerry and a thug named Emile.  This results in Jerry being beat to the point of death and taken to hospital with life threatening injuries.  For a minute it looks like Archie will finally get in trouble for this stunt, by Brother Leon intercedes and no consequences are seen.  The book ends with Archie once again assured in his dominance and his friends/cronies questioning how long he can get away with it.
What struck me the most about this book was how brutally realistic it felt.  The author jumped around to several of the boys and Brothers and showed us not only their actions, but their feeling's and their thought processes.  It was not always logical, but it rang true for teenage boys (I say not ever have been one).  I have always been driven crazy by people who allow themselves to be bullied, or go with the status quo because it is easier then creating a scene and I cheered when Jerry decided to be that guy.  I loved how initially Jerry had no intentions of being the boat rocker, but after being forced into
the role, continued on, even after he was humiliated and beat up, he stood his ground.  I liked how the author showed bullying comes in  many forms.  We see the classic physical intimidator in Emile, who is not sure why he get's off on bullying kids, but he knows it makes him happy.   We see the sadistic manipulator in Archie, a guy who see's what he calls the big picture and revels in control and humiliation.  We have the adult authority figure who does not have the students best interest at heart and uses his position to belittle and terrify the students to satisfy something he is obviously lacking.  We also see the vast majority of the student body and teachers just going along with the flow, afraid to make waves, not wanting to be the person who stands out.  I feel this is still a serious issue in society (this book was published in 1974) where nobody wants to be the person who stands up and says "hey this is not ok".  We still in schools where teachers tell kids to toughen up, or to ignore the bully and it will go away.  Social media has added another dimension in which to bully each other. This book did not have the technology we have, but still managed to convey the myriad of ways one group can torture the other.  The ending of this book made me incredibly sad and yet rang completely true.  It does feel sometimes that even when a person gets caught doing something heinous, there is always somebody to protect them, while the guy who tries to do the right thing gets hurt in some way.  Overall I feel like I should like this book way less then I do because it is so bleak, but I found it to be very readable and would put this on a school list to prompt some discussion.  I recommend it to anybody who has an interest in society, bullying, or want to start a discussion.  I give this book 8 out of 10 boxes of chocolates and will gladly put it on my "must send to nephews when they are older shelf".
Why do you think I loved this bleak book so much?  What topic get's under your skin?  Does my loudness put me in the bully category?

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