This is a problematic book in many ways. It has been (seemingly forever) on lists of banned or challenged books almost as long as it has been on many high school reading lists. It’s almost as if the teachers who long ago laminated their lesson plans and teach this book just because they have always taught it are being matched by those book-protesters (and latent book-burners) who long ago laminated their lists of objectionable books and object to this book just because they have always objected to it.

Yes, this book deals with some difficult themes. There are many graphic scenes of intimidation and outright brutality (many readers are shocked by the book’s last pages), along with squinting views at masturbation and homosexuality. (It’s almost as if a book set in an all-boys school—whether boarding or not—must deal with these issues.)

My main difficulty with this book is that it has been pigeonholed as “comptemporary realistic fiction.” It was published in 1974, which means it is no longer contemporary (note the lack of reference to not just computers, but such simple conveniences as microwave ovens), and, as anyone who has been through the Catholic school experience, not entirely realistic. I find it unbelievable that a group of Catholic Brothers would tolerate an underground society which has at least as much power (if not much more so) over students’ lives as the Church does. This may be more believable now, when many of the teaching positions in Catholic schools are held by lay people, but since so few students attend such schools, perhaps this is a moot point, and one that I must be content to live with.

My solution to these difficulties was to read this book with a different label in mind. Rather than considering this book a prime example of “comtemporary realistic fiction,” I reread it as “fantasy fiction,” or “dystopian fiction,” much as one would read Golding’s Lord of the Flies or Shute’s brilliant On the Beach. Only then was I able to find what so many others have found in this book. (Given the fact that so few students now attend Catholic schools, the fantasy reading of this book is much more understandable.)

The plot is simple. At a Catholic day-school, an underground (and thus, unapproved) student organization called the Vigils creates controlled chaos by charging students with “assignments” in which they work, not to undermine the Brothers’ control of the school, but to underline the Vigils’ own power to affect what happens in the school. (This is one of my main problems with this book being described as “realistic,” as anyone who has worked with young people cannot imagine them organizing themselves into a group with a name, a president, and a secretary. Young people simply aren’t that organized, unless they’re in a gang. Had this book spoken more directly to the gang experience, I might be able to accept it as “contemporary realistic fiction.”) In a way, the Vigils and the Brothers create a perfect symbiosis, for the Brothers are as aware of the Vigils as the Vigils are of the Brothers. They are each content to live in their own world; and those worlds intersect only when necessary.

This perfect symbiosis ends when the freshman Jerry is assigned by the Vigils to refuse to participate in the school’s annual chocolate sale. First, he irritates the dominant hierarchy of the good Catholic Brothers the wrong way by his refusal; later, he irritates the Vigils by continuing to refuse to sell chocolates even after his assignment is over. At last, the stage is set for conflict between the two competing forces of power in the school (the Brothers and the Vigils), and between the man (Jerry) and the machine (the Vigils and the Brothers).

Ultimately, this book is about power: who wields it, to what ends do they wield it, and what are the results? These are all good questions, but for those seeking a definitive answer to these questions, this book provides no such answers, or if it does, those answers are not palatable. In some ways, this book is a precursor to the American sitcom Seinfeld, in which no character learns anything or becomes anything more than which they already were. Cultural critics have accused the United States of being in perpetual adolescence since the end of World War II, and if a critical aspect of that extended adolescence is that no one comes away from their experiences changed in some way, then this book is a perfect example of that.

(And yes, I am perfectly aware that there is a sequel to this book—After the Chocolate War—which might clarify some of these issues, but it’s not currently on my “to read” list, which is about forty or fifty titles long right now.)

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