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Best known for his novel The Chocolate War (1974), Robert Cormier is a distinguished writer of fiction for young adults. Tackling themes that are sometimes considered too dark for his readers, he has brought controversy and, simultaneously, a new dimension to the field of young-adult literature. He has earned the respect of readers of all ages because of his refusal to compromise the truth as he sees it. He forces his readers to think with suspenseful narratives and sophisticated literary techniques.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Writer in His Soul
Robert Edmund Cormier was born on January 17, 1925, in the French-Canadian neighborhood of Leominster, Massachusetts, about fifty miles west of Boston. His father, originally from Quebec, supported his family by working in factories. His mother, of Irish ancestry, created a warm and loving home. Cormier was one of eight children, but when he was five, his three-year-old brother died. He decided on a literary career early in life. After a seventh grade teacher at his Catholic school praised a poem he had written, he told an interviewer, he always felt like ”a writer in my soul.”
Cormier attended Fitchburg State College, where an art teacher took an interest in his writing and actually sold one of his stories to a national Catholic magazine for him— his first publication. He dropped out of college and went to work writing commercials for a radio station, then got a reporting job with a local newspaper. A good reporter and wire editor, Cormier excelled when it came to human-interest stories. He won the Associated Press Award for Best New England News Story of 1959 for his article about a child severely burned in an automobile accident. He received the same award in 1973, this time for a story written from the perspective of mentally retarded people.
A reporter and columnist for thirty years, Cormier wrote fiction in his spare time, publishing numerous stories in magazines such as Redbook and the Saturday Evening Post. He also published three novels for adult readers in the early 1960s, including Now and At the Hour (1960), about a factory worker dying of cancer. These books received positive reviews, but sold very few copies.
Asking ”What If?”
Cormier found literary inspiration in an incident that happened to his teenage son, who was asked to raise funds for his school by selling chocolates, and refused. ”He was the only kid in the place who didn’t sell the chocolates,” Cormier said in a taped interview for Random House/Miller Brody. ”Nothing happened to him, but something happened to me. I used the thing all writers use: ‘What if?”’ Imagining a nightmare scenario of pressure from peers and school authorities, Cormier concocted The Chocolate War.
After reading the first forty pages of the manuscript, Cormier’s agent suggested that the story might succeed with a young-adult audience. Cormier had not written for children before, but he did not change any aspect of his writing; he even refused to change the downbeat ending, which caused several publishers to reject the book before it was accepted by Pantheon. His decision not to ”talk down” to younger readers was probably a key to his success. The Chocolate War launched him to prominence as a young-adult writer.
The novel tells the story of Jerry Renault; however, Cormier introduces a host of other students and faculty of Trinity High School, where abuse of power runs rampant among children and adults alike. The metaphorical language suggests broader implications: Trinity is a microcosm of the world. Jerry is forced to stand alone for his beliefs, against overwhelming odds, and he does not win. By closing the book on a pessimistic note, Cormier was breaking an unstated rule of children’s fiction that there must be some hope, something positive for teenagers to assimilate. However, despite Jerry’s defeat, his fight provides an inspiration or a warning that more people need to take a stand.
I Am the Cheese
Cormier went deeper into society’s darker properties in his second young-adult novel, I Am the Cheese (1977). The full impact of this book only hits the reader in the final pages, due to its original structure. Half is narrated by the protagonist Adam Farmer, the son of a murdered government witness, and half is the ”transcript” of conversations between Adam and his psychiatrist. The two narrative threads merge in stunning fashion at the novel’s conclusion. This chilling account of government corruption challenges young readers’ assumption that adults are always looking out for their best interest.
The success of I Am the Cheese, like that of The Chocolate War, reflects cultural changes affecting America in the 1970s. The counterculture and youth movements that had begun in the 1960s, the drawn-out military engagement in Vietnam, and the disgrace and resignation of President Richard Nixon, all fed into a pervasive skepticism toward government and other symbols of authority. Cormier tapped into that skepticism with his efforts to expose sordid depths beneath the shiny surfaces of American life, and young readers responded.
Chilling Subject Matter
His next publication, After the First Death (1979), also aimed to shatter the reader’s complacency. Depicting a terrorist hijacking of a busload of schoolchildren, the novel focuses on the inner thoughts of its three teenage protagonists: Miro, one of the hijackers; Kate, the driver of the bus; and Ben, son of an Army general in negotiation with the terrorists. All three are traumatized by the personal and political manipulations of the adults they trust. Again, Cormier whips up a series of shocks for the reader in the concluding chapters.
Having established his unique approach to young adult fiction, Cormier continued to produce thematically challenging, structurally complex novels. Among his most notable titles are Fade (1988), a supernatural horror story reminiscent of Stephen King; We All Fall Down (1991), the complex plot of which concerns vandalism, romance, guilt, and vengeance; In the Middle of the Night (1995), based on a true event in which 500 people died in a fire in an overcrowded nightclub; and Tenderness (1997), about a charismatic, psychopathic, teenage serial killer. The Rag and Bone Shop (2001) was published posthumously in 2000.
Works in Literary Context
Robert Cormier’s literary influences include the American novelist Thomas Wolfe, whose novel The Web and the Rock (1939), about a young boy living in a small town, struck a responsive chord in him. He also admired Ernest Hemingway and William Saroyan, and took after them by developing a terse, fast-paced writing style. No doubt the discipline of compressing ideas and information into radio commercials also contributed to the lean economy of his prose. A lover of mystery and suspense, Cormier recognizes the reader’s desire for action; he uses dialogue, vivid metaphors, and imagery, rather than lengthy description.
No Easy Way Out
Cormier’s writing for young adults is driven by the common themes of the genre: the search for identity, the development of character through ethical choices, and initiation into adulthood. But his bracingly realistic work also examines such issues as the nature and abuse of power, personal and political corruption, the consequences of fanatical patriotism, and the victimization of the innocent. Both The Chocolate War and I Am the Cheese illustrate the powerlessness of the individual to stand alone against a corrupt society. Cormier steadfastly refuses to allow his readers an easy way out; there are no sentimental endings in his stories. Uncompromising in his pursuit of truth, Cormier has explained that he sees his novels as an antidote to the artificial realism of television, where one need not doubt that the hero will survive to appear next week. The Chocolate War deliberately violates the cultural expectation, fed by television and Hollywood movies, that brave, solitary heroes will eventually prevail.
Still Ahead of the Curve
The bold, bleak realism of Robert Cormier’s stories, and the risks he took in overturning narrative conventions, made a profound impact on the genre of young-adult literature. He paved the way for other authors to explore tragic personal and historical events, subjects previously considered inappropriate for young readers. However, few authors of juvenile literature have truly followed his lead. The vast majority continue to temper their realism with a spoonful of sentimentality.
Works in Critical Context
Beginning with his first novel, Now and At the Hour, Cormier’s fiction has received tremendous critical acclaim. For example, The Chocolate War, I Am the Cheese, and After the First Death were all included on the American Library Association’s Best of the Best list for 1970-1982.
The Chocolate War
However, Cormier’s work has stirred up more than its share of controversy. The Chocolate War’s brutal depiction of violence and corruption in a high school, and the utter bleakness of its ending, drew a negative reaction from numerous educators and parents. Norma Bagnall, for example, objected that the book lacked positive role models and presented only the ugly side of life. Cormier’s subsequent works have also provoked the reaction that their stark depiction of violence and sexuality, and their unvarnished pessimism, make them unsuitable reading material for children. Three Cormier titles are among the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of the 1990s, according to the American Library Association, with The Chocolate War listed at #4.
On the other hand, Cormier s many supporters defend not only his artistic license and right to free expression, but the appropriateness of his objectives. In ”Realism in Adolescent Fiction: In Defense of The Chocolate War,” Betty Carter and Karen Harris argue that ”The unpleasant should not be confused with the unsuitable. Cormier s responsibility to his craft requires him to present characters and images, not as one would like them to be, but as they must be in order to make the novel and its message credible. Educator Kara Keeling urges readers to interpret The Chocolate War through the literary conventions of tragedy, and claims that young readers are perfectly capable of handling tragic messages, and even benefiting from them. Cormier’s young readers would seem to agree; unlike some of their grown-up counterparts, they understand and appreciate the author s unflinching honesty.
- Campbell, Patricia J. Presenting Robert Cormier. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1985.
- Bagnall, Norma. ”Realism: How Realistic Is It? A Look at The Chocolate War.” Top of the News. 36 (Winter 1980): 214-217.
- Carter, Betty, and Karen Harris. ”Realism in Adolescent Fiction: In Defense of The Chocolate War.’ Top of the News. 36 (Spring 1980): 283-285.
- Davis, William A. ”Tough Tales for Teenagers.” Boston Globe Magazine. (November 16, 1980). DeLuca, Geraldine, and Roni Natov. ”An Interview with Robert Cormier. The Lion and the Unicorn. 2 (Fall 1978): 109-135.
- Grove, Lee. ”Robert Cormier Comes of Age. Boston Magazine. (December 1980). Iskander, Sylvia Patterson. ”Readers, Realism, and Robert Cormier.” Children’s Literature Journal.15 (1987): 7-18.
- Keeling, Kara. ”’The Misfortune of a Man Like Ourselves’: Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War as Aristotelian Tragedy.” The ALAN Review 26 (1999): 9-12.
- MacLeod, Anne Scott. ”Robert Cormier and the Adolescent Novel.” Children’s Literature in Education. 12 (Summer 1981): 74-81.
- Myszor, Frank. ”The See-Saw and the Bridge in Robert Cormier’s After the First Death.” Children’s Literature Journal. 16 (1988): 77-90.
- Veglahn, Nancy. ”The Bland Face of Evil in the Novels of Robert Cormier.” The Lion and the Unicorn.12 (June 1988): 12-18.
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