Robert Cormier 1925–
American novelist, short story writer, editor, and journalist. Rather than the explorations of interpersonal relationships favored by many young adult novelists, Cormier deals with the outside forces that test the individual and often maliciously oppose him. His themes are powerful and not often considered in young adult fiction: betrayal, vulnerability, guilt, paranoia, fear, and psychosis. His protagonists enter or are forced into situations which place them in direct opposition to powerful adversaries, both identified and faceless. Without any help or support, these characters all come to the realization, as does Adam in I Am the Cheese, that in order to survive they must learn to stand alone. Many of Cormier's topics and subjects stem from personal experience, much of it gained during his career as a newspaper reporter and human interest columnist. For instance, the models for Gracie of A Little Raw on Monday Mornings and Tommy Battin of Take Me Where the Good Times Are were interviewed by Cormier while on assignment. His father's death from cancer was the stimulus for Now and at the Hour, and his son's refusal to sell candy for his high school served as the background for The Chocolate War, Cormier's first book for young adults. Since The Chocolate War, Cormier has written exclusively for young adults. His novels are written with an emphasis on dialogue, which he uses rather than narrative description to develop his characters. The novels are extremely fast-moving and establish personality and situation in short, quick strokes. Cormier has been criticized for the bleak, depressing endings of his books and has been accused of pessimism by some critics. Although the vision in his novels acknowledges the darker side of life, Cormier's attitude seems to be one of awareness of evil rather than agreement with it. Without moralizing, Cormier's novels stress the importance of self-reliance and self-respect. His combination of realism, sensitivity, and originality has made him popular with both readers and critics, and has moved him to the forefront of recent young adult novelists. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed., and Something about the Author, Vol. 10.)
[Now and at the Hour] has the ring of personal experience, which the setting, a New England factory town, and the social level, that of skilled labor just below the promotable-to-management level, unobtrusively reinforce. It is not likely that a writer who did not know this particular kind of world at first hand could present it so casually or with such conviction. Mr. Cormier does not give much attention to his background, for his interest runs in another direction, but every detail that he provides is right….
It is quite a task to make an interesting hero of a man who has done no great deeds, committed no crimes, suffered no psychological upheavals, never been painfully poor or even mildly rich, and who has in the course of the book nothing to do but think, an activity which he carries on at a quite uncomplicated level and without a trace of imagination. Mr. Cormier not only succeeds in making Alph interesting, he creates considerable suspense with the question of how long the man can keep up his pretense of ignorance. There are moments when Alph seems in danger of becoming too good to be true, but the author always manages to avoid the saccharine and the sentimental, and ends by creating a touching picture of a man who is not nearly as ordinary as he himself thinks.
Phoebe Adams, "Heroism Unsung," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1960 by The Atlantic Monthly Company,...
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[In Now and at the Hour] Alph Le Blanc, an ordinary, family man who is a factory worker, lies in bed during (what he fears and cannot at first accept) the last weeks of his life…. In the narrowing circumference of his days he comes to know pain, the glimpse of forsythia and visits from falsely cheerful friends and family.
He has the force of his faith behind him as he comes quietly to realize the power of an uneventful but good life….
Now and at the Hour is, surprisingly (considering the author's control and incisiveness), a first novel. In spite of its subject, it is anything but repellant, for Alph's humanity and his courage—and not his illness—are its center. This is writing and perceiving of a rare fineness and distinction. I recommend this poignant book with the greatest earnestness and pleasure. Reading it has been an exciting and rewarding experience. (p. 182)
Riley Hughes, in Catholic World (copyright 1960 by The Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle in the State of New York), December, 1960.
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William B. Hill, S.J.
The most engaging feature of [A Little Raw on Monday Mornings] is its wonderfully honest realism. It is so plain at times that it is tiring; the reality is obvious, familiar, and occasionally a bit flat. At its best, however, the story is bright and appealing; and at its very infrequent worst, it still has the merit of a rare sort of artistic integrity….
There may be a touch of unreal coincidence in the circumstances leading to Gracie's pregnancy; and there is too much of the type, too little of the individual in the character of Terry, Gracie's fellow worker and confidante. Otherwise there is an abundance of real artistry in this clear, sometimes inevitably depressing account of a poor, stumbling woman caught in a sorry situation. The stuff of tragedy is not here—Gracie is much too pathetic to be tragic; but there is plenty of human sympathy expressed in and demanded by this living story about one of the sorry little faceless people who inhabit the ugly and nameless buildings in our drab streets. There is no tremendous relief at the book's end, no purging of pity and fear, but there does arise some wonder at heroism's many unsuspected dwelling places.
The author is a trifle awkward in a few very brief passages dealing with the actualities of sex; the interludes are embarrassing because Mr. Cormier seems to be trying to prove that he and his markedly Catholic publishers are as sophisticated as the next...
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[In "Take Me Where the Good Times Are"] an oldster named Tommy Bartin has a brief but violent furlough from the Monument City Infirmary, so called because "nobody is supposed to say 'poorhouse' anymore."… Mr. Cormier depicts his inevitably disastrous odyssey with an admirable lack of hokum, bypassing the easy sentimentality that this drab El Dorado invites…. It is a pleasure to add that the sum total of [Bartin's] failures to recapture his identity in Mr. Cormier's refreshing little history inspires respect rather than pity. (p. 43)
Martin Levin, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1965 by The New Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 25, 1965.
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Harold C. Gardiner
To chronicle the small pleasures, the larger troubles and the rare triumphs of the somewhat seedy poor in such a way as to make the characters interesting and even strangely attractive is no small achievement. Mr. Cormier is apparently fully launched on a career of detailing the annals of the poor, and his special cachet is that he manages this intractable material without sentimentality, without crying out at the culpability of society (that convenient scapegoat of the sociologically-minded novelist), and even with a deep respect for the human dignity of his people. He did this quite impressively in his earlier A Little Raw on Monday Mornings, and if [Take Me Where the Good Times Are] is not quite as impressive, it still deserves a thoughtful reading….
This is a good, sound, if unspectacular book. It is deceptively simple. And it rings true. Mr. Cormier has staked out a field that he plows very well indeed, and with each succeeding book he has plowed deeper into some of the fundamental realities of life. (p. 717)
Harold C. Gardiner, in America (© America Press, 1965; all rights reserved), May 15, 1965.
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Few literary tricks can be more annoying to a reader—to this reader, at least—than to find the author pleading for sympathy for a character when that character is clearly dreadful, hopeless, impossible to cherish. Think of the legions of virginal young damsels who bloom in the lush gardens of 19th-century English fiction. How our feelings are played upon! How we are hectored to love them!…
Whatever else has happened to fiction these past fifty years, we can be grateful for the passing of the Sweet Young Thing. But the same kind of novelistic sleight-of-hand is still going on, with the same unhappy effect: witness [Saul Bellow's] Herzog and, much lower down the same ladder, Take Me Where the Good Times Are.
In Robert Cormier's book, it is an old man, poor and alone—the 20th-century equivalent of the Young Girl apparently will be the Senior Citizen….
Alas, alas, Mr. Cormier has chosen to tell this story in the first person, thus making the unpleasant character of Tommy Bartin even more unpleasant, for the reader loses any reliable guide as to whether he is to take Tommy straight (as Tommy takes himself) or to read between the lines for the author's subtle indicators that Tommy is not to be trusted. Given the love for irony of so much modern fiction, the inclination would be to jazz up the book by picking the second alternative, but judging by this book itself, I'd say that we...
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["The Chocolate War"], written for teen-agers but a strong read for adults, is a story with a highly serious message not only about the usurpation and misuse of power but about power's inevitable staying. "The Chocolate War" is masterfully structured and rich in theme; the action is well crafted, well timed, suspenseful; complex ideas develop and unfold with clarity. The novel may be faulted only for its general short-changing of character. The characters are quick studies, recognizable at a glance, two-dimensional.
The stuff of this novel is serious … and although a mushy, carameled battle is expected, and although humorous scenes do precede the novel's denouement, an easy out does not occur. Rather, like most rebellions, the action here is turned rather quickly, and there with a disturbing impact is the point, the message of the story and the conclusion of the novel.
"The Chocolate War," presenting as it does a philosophical plateau between childhood and adulthood, seems an ideal study for the high school classroom. The characters, although not deeply drawn, are accurate and touch close enough to raise questions of identification, questions of one's location within an arena of power, and also provide some hard recognition of the functions of power within a society. A scene, frightening in its overtones, shows Brother Leon persuading a classroom that its star pupil is in fact a cheat and a liar. Of course the boy...
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The big book of this YA autumn is clearly—and justifiably—Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War…. Too many young adult novels only promise an outspoken revelation of the relevant. The Chocolate War delivers the goods.
The goods in the story are 20,000 boxes of chocolates that a depraved teaching brother means for the students of a tottering parochial school to sell. Sweet charity is the mask for Brother Leon's sharp and shady fund-raising. Since nothing is petty to the institutionalized, the chocolate sale consumes the school.
The plot paces to a cataclysmic conclusion. The young will understand the outcome. They won't like it, but they'll understand.
The Chocolate War is surely the most uncompromising novel ever directed to the "12 and up reader"—and very likely the most necessary. It depicts the mass psychology behind the looming menace of the gangs that have never been more omnipotent than now. In his moneymaking venture, Brother Leon enlists the aid of Trinity School's invisible empire, a club of middle-class thugs who deal in mental—and ultimately physical—torture.
Significantly, we never learn the family backgrounds of the gang leaders. The author, who is free of the fatal susceptibilities of a guidance counselor, judges them unforgivingly on the evidence of their corruption. The measure of Brother Leon's own depravity is plumbed when he explains...
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The Chocolate War, a brutal, forthright study in violence, ends in doubt—one might say, in an inglorious draw. Presumably the author was not evading an ending but honestly intended to suggest that no decision between Good and Evil was really possible. Extreme as his picture is, it can only too readily be believed…. Brother Leon's actions, seem entirely from the point of view of his pupils, are never truly motivated; he is, ultimately, a Bogyman, an embodiment of Evil who is, perhaps, only temporarily halted in his course. This is not a book for the squeamish and it contains a note of cynicism which might perhaps have been less obvious if the character of Brother Leon had been developed in depth, as the story seems to demand that it should be. (pp. 2657-58)
Margery Fisher, in her Growing Point, July, 1975.
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[The Chocolate War] will surely be one of those books that sweep through teenage readers with the fervent interest that Catcher in the Rye roused in its day….
I've … spoken to adult readers whom it worries…. Their charge against it has nothing to do with the book's compulsion. On the contrary. They say it is too attractive, too compelling, too persuasive. They say that such a hopeless ending—hopeless, not (colloquially) unsuccessful—should not be presented to young people.
But to say that is to argue that books form ideas and behaviour according to the conclusions of their stories. In other words a novel's happy ending helps towards happy endings for people. Christian novelists make Christian readers. And I doubt that anyone actually holds such a literary philosophy to be true.
Robert Cormier obviously doesn't believe it. He dedicates the book to his son: which indicates that he's understood entirely what literature is about. It presents an image for us to contemplate. It says—in the case of his book—let's follow to their logical conclusion certain facets of society as you and I see them (remembering that The Chocolate War was written during the Watergate/Nixon debacle) and let's take that image to its logical conclusion and see what happens.
The idea is to ask the question, Do you want a world like this? The answer has to be, No. In...
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Cormier has written a novel of psychological suspense [in "I Am the Cheese"]. He is a fine technician and this is an absorbing, even a brilliant job. The book is assembled in mosaic fashion: a tiny chip here, a chip there, and suddenly the outline of a face dimly begins to take shape. Everything is related to something else; everything builds and builds to a fearsome climax. At the end the boy discovers that he is indeed the cheese—the bait around which the rats gather. Little can he do about it, except react the way God and Freud have provided. The ending is grim indeed.
It is not that "I Am the Cheese" is in any way sensational, sadistic or anything like that. Cormier merely has the knack of making horror out of the ordinary, as the masters of suspense writing know how to do. The story moves along quietly enough. The bicycling adventures of the boy are the kind of adventures anybody today could experience. Where the tension enters is in the mind of the boy, who (as it turns out) is faced with a situation with which no child should have to cope.
The book is written in a highly sophisticated style, and the plotting and literary workmanship will delight the connoisseur. But, one wonders, will the style and, indeed, some of the actual content be above the heads of most teen-agers? It may be, however, that kids are more sophisticated today and that nothing much comes as a surprise to them.
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[I Am the Cheese], a magnificent accomplishment, begins innocuously with a first-person narrative: "I am riding the bicycle and I am on Route 31 in Monument, Massachusetts, on my way to Ruttersburg, Vermont, and I'm pedaling furiously because this is an old-fashioned bike…." The reader, however, is suddenly jolted by a shift in point of view: the appearance of the official-looking transcript of a taped dialogue between the protagonist of the story and Brint, a mysterious interlocutor. The dialogue, in turn, is interspersed with an account of the events as related by an omniscient third-person narrator. Skillfully, an intertwining pattern for the whole book is created, rhythmically alternating the three devices; but much more than a brilliant technical tour de force is achieved. These devices, as expertly as they are used, build the necessary dynamic structure to encompass the onward-pacing story full of tension, mysteries, and secrets—the disclosure of the fate of a young protagonist whose life is inextricably entangled in a series of thorny predicaments. (p. 427)
As in The Chocolate War, Mr. Cormier is actually writing about human integrity; and in the course of doing so, he cogently uncovers the lacerations that evil often inflicts upon the innocent…. Truly a novel in the tragic mode, cunningly wrought, shattering in its emotional implications. (p. 428)
Paul Heins, in...
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For [I am the Cheese] Robert Cormier has returned to the theme which dominated his outstanding earlier book, The Chocolate War: that of innocence and morality destroyed by the ruthless ambition of the masters of a corrupt society. In The Chocolate War, this society was a private school, and the victim a boy who alone stood out against corruption. Now, in I am the Cheese, Robert Cormier has extended this dark theme. The hero is an unwilling, uncomprehending and truly innocent victim of a greater, more hideous conspiracy; the corrupt society is our own, and the innocent victim must be completely destroyed in order to sustain it.
At first sight, the narrative construction of the novel seems difficult and pretentious…. As the novel nears its end, the point and meaning of the book's construction become plain, and the narrative strands combine in a climax of depressing violence and a conclusion of almost intolerable despair…. I am the Cheese is, first and foremost, a novel of suspense through which the reader is lured by the excitement and tension of the story. But the book is more than just a good thriller: Robert Cormier has written a chilling study of a mind on the verge of disintegration, and presented us with a view of our society that is too dire to contemplate. Robert Cormier does not hesitate to challenge and disturb his readers and although I am the Cheese is no book for the emotionally...
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The technique in I am the Cheese … is an exacting one, and to follow the tripartite narrative readers will have to be alert as well as concerned if they are to realise its full value. There is no mitigation of the terror or the peril of Adam Farmer, a boy of fourteen whose privacy is invaded and whose mind is almost destroyed by the secret, unassailable agencies of government…. Through hints, half-truths, the brutal insistence of Brint the questioner and the pathetic delusion of the boy, the author presents his case for the liberty of the individual, his case against the menace of institutional power. As the title suggests, Adam has lost his family (the "Farmer in the Dell" and the farmer's wife) and, like the cheese, he stands alone. He does still stand—so much we guess from the enigmatic end of the book; but his prospects are bleak, unspoken and undefined, and the tone of the book is tragic. Literary technique can sometimes destroy the candour of a book or mask its structure. In [I am the Cheese], more consistently balanced for young readers than The Chocolate War, technique has added something positive and integral to the whole. (p. 3286)
Margery Fisher, in her Growing Point, April, 1978.
Powerful but puzzling, [I Am the Cheese] has a message hidden in its tantalising relevations. Young Adam Farmer is cycling from Monument in...
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Walter M. Humes
Set against the background of a prestige American school, [The Chocolate War] explores the theme of corruption on various levels—the corruption of the adolescent through fear and group pressure, the corruption of those in authority who betray their ideals, ultimately the corruption of all institutions because of human weakness. The narrative is powerful and compelling, and Robert Cormier's portrayal of the psychology of a wide range of characters … is very impressive. Both language and events are frank and realistic, features which serve as an antidote to sentimental accounts of adolescence. (p. 26)
Walter M. Humes, in Book Window (© 1978 S.C.B.A. and contributors), Summer 1978.
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Young Adam's bicycle journey … begins ordinarily enough [in I am the Cheese], and his recollections of the events leading up to the accident seem at first coherent and believable, but when the narrative begins to be interspersed with transcripts of recorded interrogations of the boy by a patient but cold and remorseless interviewer, the picture gradually takes on a nightmare quality. The nightmare becomes wilder and wilder, the suspense tauter and tauter, and the climax, when Adam's true situation is revealed, is searing and horrifying. It affords the reader naught for his comfort when it is realised that, for his own sake, Adam must not let his interrogator make him remember the past completely. 1984 looms alarmingly close. Sixteen is young enough, I feel, for the harrowing experience of encountering this remarkably powerful book. Very strongly recommended, for any age beyond that. (p. 281)
Robert Bell, in The School Librarian, September, 1978.
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There is a striking similarity between the end of Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War and the end of William Shakespeare's Hamlet. In both works the hero gives a final message to his closest friend, one whose suffering has been chiefly that of a spectator. (p. 217)
Like Shakespeare's play, The Chocolate War is concerned with putting things right in a world gone rotten. Jerry's story of standing out for conscience is carefully, convincingly built, and if its obsessive concern with the evil of Brother Leon and Archie needed justification—which it does not—Shakespeare again provides a model. He, too, was fascinated by the creative springs which can be tapped, in some men and women and children, only by the impulse to control and destroy. Even in Othello, where the destructive will works itself out in a particularly perverse way, Shakespeare finally asserts the grandeur of life; and in Romeo and Juliet, where youth and energy and beauty all die, hope does not.
Juliet and Romeo and Jerry and [his friend] Goober are the same age.
In 1848 the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard published an essay about Juliet ["Crisis in the Life of an Actress"]…. In the essay Kierkegaard describes the "astonishing" power of youth in art, its possibilities and limitations. The young heroine has, first, an overwhelming confidence in the present moment and in her ability to control it...
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In two justly admired novels, "The Chocolate War" and "I Am the Cheese," Robert Cormier has dealt with the betrayal of youth, creating landscapes familiar but unnervingly strange—as in a di Chirico painting—in which one sees a boy in mid-adolescence, exceptionally decent and sensitive, standing alone as invisible forces gather against him.
The betrayals themselves, perpetrated by the elders who were by nature designed to be the boy's strength and support, are breaches of trust that lead to the extinction of trust and the spirit it fires. Parents, teachers, mentors, Mr. Cormier makes plain, can each have their own self-serving need to manipulate the young people in their charge, and when they act on that need the consequences can be deadly.
Presented in narrow focus, never moralizing, written in a lean and graphic prose that creates great tension, the novels provided an experience that this reader cannot shake off. The images and ethical questions they raised are still fresh and troubling, and provided an emotional background for the reading of Mr. Cormier's new book, "After the First Death."
Here, fixing on the same theme of betrayal, the author widens his focus. A busload of small children on their way to a New England day camp is hijacked by a gang of what we may surmise from the few clues offered is one of the more bloodthirsty adjuncts of the Palestine Liberation Organization. From different...
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