Jerry Renault ponders the question on the poster in his locker: Do I dare to disturb the universe? Refusing to sell chocolates in the annual Trinity school fund-raiser may not seem like a radical thing to do. But when Jerry challenges a secret school society called The Vigils, his defiant act turns into an all-out war. Now, the only question is: Who will survive?
The Chocolate War is one of those books destined to be polarizing. Set in an all boys school where a “secret” gang harasses both students and teachers, it asks readers to become invested in a story about unlikable characters–and to believe that incredible trouble can arise from a seemingly innocuous fundraiser. It’s hard to find someone in the story to root for–the nicest characters are side points and tend to remove themselves from the drama–but the story itself is compelling and an interestingly dark portrayal of high school.
Part of the fascination of the book is that is seems both realistic and unrealistic at the same time. The characterization is unflinchingly, introducing high school boys who are cunning and ruthless but who also have vulnerabilities and do completely normal things like moon over girls or worry about getting onto the football team. These definitely aren’t the boys readers will find in a lot of YA today, which tends towards portraying them as swoonworthy love interests who smell like sandalwood and know just the right sweet and suave things to say. And I found it refreshing.
On the other hand, it’s crazy to think that half the things that occur in the book are possible. An underground gang practically running a school? A guy in charge who seems to be some sort of mysterious but twisted genius? An entire school going to war over whether or not one guy sells chocolates for just ONE of many yearly fundraisers? It’s interesting, but it falls a bit in the realm of The Lord of the Flies for me; I can hardly believe this is what would happen under this set of circumstances.
However, I do actually like that so much fallout comes from something so insignificant, the fact that one kid saying he won’t sell chocolate causes everyone to go wild and things to fall apart. That is, really, the point of the book: that something that shouldn’t be that important ends up affecting so many things, that selling or not selling the chocolate ends up being a symbol of something greater.
I know a lot of people hate this book because of the awful characters and maybe the overall grimness, but I enjoyed it–if that’s the right word. It’s so different from most of the YA that’s being sold now that I found it incredibly refreshing. It stands on its own merits, as well, of course, as the author tells an interesting and thought-provoking story.