Why is it surprising that Leper is the first Devon boy to enlist, and how is he different from the other boys who talk of enlisting?
Leper is different from most of the other boys because Leper could best be described as a naturalist and/or idealist. He is a peaceful and quiet kid that enjoys spending time in nature and collecting snails. Nothing really upsets him, either. He's not easily angered, and he isn't likely to react on sheer instinct to a changing situation. He's a pensive and methodical thinker. He's also a bit of an old soul. I wouldn't say that he's against change or technology, but there are times when Leper lets it be known that he thinks new inventions are ruining his favorite activities. It's why he speaks up against downhill skiing.
They're ruining skiing in this country, rope tows and chair lifts and all that stuff. You get carted up, and then you whizz down. You never get to really look at the trees, at a tree. I just like to go along and see what I'm passing and enjoy myself.
Oddly enough, it's the war propaganda film about skiing soldiers that probably does the most to convince Leper that enlisting might be a good idea.
Nothing tainted these white warriors of winter as they swooped down their spotless mountainsides, and this cool, clean response to war glided straight into Leper’s Vermont heart. . .
“I’m going to enlist in these ski troops,” he went on mildly, so unemphatically that my mind went back to half-listening. Threats to enlist that winter were always declaimed like Blinker’s, with a grinding of back teeth and a flashing of eyes; I had already heard plenty of them.
Gene doesn't believe that Leper will actually do it. He just cannot envision a kid that collects snails and hunts for beaver dams enlisting in the war. Leper is a kid that goes hiking and camping in order to more or less commune with nature. He's happy when he is in a quiet and solitary location. War and combat are antithetical to what Leper enjoys doing and being around. Gene has no problem envisioning boys like Phineas joining the war. He loves competition, but Leper is not like that. He even refuses to jump off of the tree branch. Gene is so floored by the fact that Leper joins the war that Gene actually feels that the war is even less real now because of the unreality of Leper joining it.
So I ceased to have any real sense of it.
This was not shaken even by the enlistment of Leper Lepellier. In fact that made the war seem more unreal than ever. No real war could draw Leper voluntarily away from his snails and beaver dams. His enlistment seemed just another of Leper’s vagaries, such as the time he slept on top of Mount Katahdin in Maine where each morning the sun first strikes United States territory. On that morning, satisfying one of his urges to participate in nature, Leper Lepellier was the first thing the rising sun struck in the United States.
Leper is the least likely to enlist for several reasons. First, when the other Devon boys discuss the war, Leper shows no interest. Instead, he is fascinated by his snail farm and other elements of nature. Secondly, Leper shows little propensity for athletic or physical activities. He has no desire to jump from the tree, and when Finny announces that Leper has finally decided to jump, Gene is shocked because it seems out of character for Leper. As Gene and Finny excel in Blitzball, Leper fails, and it is only because of Finny's generous nature in interpreting Leper's lack of skill as a new play, that Leper continues to play.
Leper is different from the other Devon boys because most of them are interested in true competition. They see the war almost as another venue for competiting with one another. Leper is an Idealist. He wants to commune with nature and has a tendency to romanticize real life--hence, his decision to enlist after he watches a propaganda film about the ski troops. Leper, like Gene, is also an outsider, but he doesn't have Gene's physical abilities to create a true "in" for himself. Part of his decision to enlist first is to fit in.