Robert Cormier Cormier, Robert (Edmund) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Robert (Edmund) Cormier 1925–

American novelist, short story writer, editor, and journalist.

Cormier writes of individuals in conflict with social and political forces. His protagonists often find themselves in situations which place them in direct opposition to powerful adversaries, both identified and unknown. These protagonists eventually come to realize, as does Adam in I Am the Cheese (1977), that in order to survive they must learn to stand alone. 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 contemporary young adult novelists.

Many of Cormier's subjects stem from his experiences as a newspaper reporter and human interest columnist. For instance, the models for Gracie of A Little Raw on Monday Mornings (1963) and Tommy Battin of Take Me Where the Good Times Are (1965) were interviewed by Cormier while on assignment. Other themes are rooted in Cormier's personal life: his father's death from cancer was the stimulus for Now and at the Hour (1960), and his son's refusal to sell candy for his high school served as the background for The Chocolate War (1974). These novels are fast-moving and establish personality in short, quick strokes.

The Chocolate War was Cormier's first book for young adults and since its publication he has written exclusively for that audience, often facing controversy over the appropriateness of pessimistic themes for young adult readers. His novel After the First Death (1979), which portrays the capture by terrorists of a busload of children, has stimulated the same debate among critics as Cormier's earlier works. While some critics denounce his writing as bleak and fatalistic, others praise Cormier's honesty in dealing with evil. Critics have found a more optimistic tone in two other recent Cormier works. Eight Plus One (1980), a collection of short stories, concentrates on the intricacies of relationships, particularly between fathers and sons, while The Bumblebee Flies Anyway (1983) depicts a group of terminally ill adolescents who are able to assert some control over their destinies.

(See also CLC, Vol. 12; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 5; and Something about the Author, Vol. 10.)

Pamela D. Pollack

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Chocolate War (1974) and I Am the Cheese (1977) … didn't pull many punches, but Cormier's [After the First Death] is another class of calculated shocker. A bus with a girl driver and a load of six-year-old campers is hijacked by Palestinian-type terrorists, among whose demands is exposure of a military brainwashing project, Inner Delta. The tense, claustrophobic on-the-bus scenes are related by teen guerrilla Miro (protégé of political bomber Artkin) and Kate, the cute, coquettish bus driver with a weak bladder but strong nerves. These are intercut with the anguished outpourings of the guilt-ridden head of Inner Delta and the Brigadier General's terminally depressed preppie son, Ben…. Most teen thrillers stop short of child killing, but before Cormier is through the death toll is swollen with Ben's suicide (after which pill-popping Dad goes mad); a likable little boy slain and another O.D.-ed on drugged candy. The graphic brutality and cynical inhumanity exhibited by both sides will not set well with some. But, bloody as it is, this taut teaser is perfectly controlled, marked by grim humor … and hard-hitting headline verité.

Pamela D. Pollack, in a review of "After the First Death," in School Library Journal, Vol. 25, No. 7, March, 1979, p. 146.

Stanley Ellin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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. (pp. 30-1)

In this small epic of terrorism and counter-terrorism and their consequences, Mr. Cormier pulls no punches. The brutality is all there, the intimations of sexuality in the young, the sour judgments of values by their elders, whose values have been rotted by political cant—are all presented without sermonizing in a marvelously told story. "After the First Death" more than sustains the reputation its author has won with "The Chocolate War" and "I Am the Cheese"; it adds luster to it.

Putting all three books together, one disturbing aspect becomes clear: Their basic theme, no matter how brilliant the variations on it, suggests unrelieved despair. The world of Mr. Cormier's people is a Dantean Inferno without any hint of Purgatorio or Paradiso. This is, of course, an antidote to the mindless Happy Ending school of literature but, like most such medicine, it does leave a bitter taste in the mouth. (p. 31)

Stanley Ellin, "You Can and Can't Go Home Again: 'After the First Death'," in The New York Times Book Review, April 29, 1979, pp. 30-1.

L. J. Davis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Time was, not so very long ago, when books for adolescent readers centered on such things as a pair of plucky youths and their adventures on an island. Islands were neat. For one thing, there were rarely parents on them, and if the plot dictated that our protagonists were to arrive there via shipwreck, the wrecked ship in question fairly bulged with keen survival gear. When there were villains, they inevitably possessed hearts as black as coal, and they were, even when not very bright, the most interesting people around.

I graduated to Horatio Hornblower and Sherlock Holmes, spent some time with [Joseph] Conrad and [André] Gide, and now seem to have come full circle with Rex Stout…. Nothing in my experience, therefore, prepared me for the jolt I received on reading Robert Cormier's After the First Death. It appears that things have changed in a certain quadrant of juvenile fiction. The trouble is, they haven't changed enough.

The plot, which is a little flooring for a while, revolves around the hijacking of a school bus full of tots by a band of ruthless foreign terrorists…. Now, there is no denying that Cormier writes fluently and well; although the book does contain one very large, cheap trick, its suspense and anguish are genuine and sustained, and it is an altogether serious undertaking. We are dealing, it would seem, with the real world.

That having been said, a few quibbles are in order....

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Bill Crider

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[After the First Death] is a strangely disturbing book…. There is nothing particularly new about [using terrorism as a plot], but the book is filled with enough suspense, violence, and sudden death to keep any reader turning the pages.

What makes this book different from others of the same sort? The people involved. Cormier is not really interested in violence per se but in how violence affects peoples' lives, especially the lives of innocent people…. How can two naive young people deal with a complete disregard for human life and suffering? How can they possibly understand the feelings that drive the hijackers? And what can happen to a father's mind when his plans go awry and his son is tortured and shot because of the father's miscalculation?

Cormier is not interested only in the innocent, however. He is even more detailed in his revelation of the character of Miro, the sixteen-year-old terrorist who is looking forward to killing his first man. What makes Miro what he is, and why does he fight for a homeland that he has never seen, will in all probability never see? Cormier tries to answer these questions with a vivid description of Miro's life in refugee camps, his training in terrorist tactics, and his devotion to his leader, the enigmatic Artkin. It is a tribute to the author's skill that he succeeds in making Miro a sympathetic monster. (pp. 115-16)

Bill Crider, in a review of "After the First Death," in Best Sellers, Vol. 39, No. 4, July, 1979, pp. 115-16.


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Novels for young adults that deal with social issues of one sort or another have been around for quite awhile now. In fact, social relevance seems to be a primary feature of the genre, the attempt to catch the reader by surprise with unconventional characters and situations as much a part of the books' basic ingredients as the adolescent hero himself. Many of these novels, however, stop short of fully exploring the issues they introduce. It is enough, the sentiment seems to be, that the subjects are unveiled…. There have of course been exceptions, but the message of most of these novels, like that of the most traditional literature, is that, the appeals of passion and rebellion notwithstanding, the conventionally...

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Norma Bagnall

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Recently we have seen a trend in literature for young people that some call realism, but in fact it is not realistic at all. Realism is an honest attempt to picture people and events as they really are. To portray things from the brutal or dark side only, as is being done in current literature, is no more realistic than presenting only those sweet and idealistic stories of an earlier age.

As an example, The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier, is described as a realistic junior novel, and it meets some of the requirements for realism. Cormier has written honestly, I believe, what he thinks could happen at a private boys' school in the 1970s when one student decides to flout the system. Such...

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Alleen Pace Nilsen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The process of naming characters is a fascinating area of young adult literature. In some of the best books, characters' names have been chosen or devised so carefully that they qualify as poetry. Many of them are phonologically interesting, employing such poetic devices as rhyme, repetition, and rhythm. The communication is often on more than one level with different readers appreciating different connotations and different layers of symbolism. And also like poetry, they are semantically compact in that they communicate a great deal of information within a very few syllables….

Once I began noticing interesting names, they seemed to appear in almost everything I read. But a nagging suspicion began...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In the winter 1980 issue of Top of the News Norma Bagnall describes The Chocolate War as a hopeless novel about the forced sale of candy in a boys' parochial high school [see excerpt above]. She considers it an unrealistic picture of adolescent life and unsuitable reading material for teenagers. We think her description is inaccurate and her criticism unwarranted.

Cormier's novel is only superficially about the fund-raising activities at a Catholic institution; its greater concerns are with the nature and functioning of tyranny. While it demonstrates the inability of a decent individual to survive unaided in a corrupt and oppressive society, it does not imply that such defeat is...

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Myra L. Kibler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Many books on the shelves for adolescent reading subscribe to the idea that by age sixteen or seventeen, a female's primary developmental task is to be able to attract the attentions of a worthy male. Certainly achieving a feminine social role is one of the adolescent's tasks, and many high school girls do equate that task with attracting a male and subordinate all other concerns to it. It would be too restrictive for teachers, critics, or publishers to specify any particular concept of female identity as proper for the young adult audience, and yet those who have a concern for young adolescent literature should be aware of the problem and should look at the way books present female identity….


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Leigh Dean

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The short story is not my favorite form, but Robert Cormier is one of my favorite authors. Here, in this collection [Eight Plus One], a gentler, calmer, more vulnerable side of him is revealed. Sometimes, the narrator is an adolescent; more often he is an adult. He is always male, and addresses us in the first person. The stories are about relationships: about fathers, about sons, about fathers and sons, and fathers and daughters, and about husbands…. Each story is prefaced by a remarkable "introduction," with a life all its own. In these, Mr. Cormier shares his journey in the craft of writing. Although this collection succeeds on many levels, I don't think Robert Cormier's younger fans will enjoy this volume...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The book that we have chosen as an example of the best of modern realism for young adults is Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War (1974). It contains the kind of realism that many other books had been just leading up to. Its message about conformity and human manipulation is all the more powerful because the young protagonist is so vulnerable. (p. 186)

In selecting The Chocolate War as a touchstone example, we asked ourselves several questions about the book. These same or similar questions could be asked when evaluating almost any problem novel. First, does the book make a distinctive contribution? Does it say something new or does it convey something old in a new way? And if so, is it...

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Zena Sutherland

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

While [Eight Plus One] should interest many young adult Cormier fans, it seems even more suitable for an adult audience, not because of the difficulty or sophistication of the writing but because of the subject matter; most of the stories are written from an adult's viewpoint. Many have autobiographical overtones, and while they are not as trenchant or exciting as the author's The Chocolate War and I Am the Cheese, they are adroitly crafted, perceptive, and often poignant vignettes about the complexities of human relationships. (pp. 67-8)

Zena Sutherland, in a review of "Eight Plus One: Stories," in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, Vol....

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Robert Wilson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In the stories in Eight Plus One] Cormier writes mostly about the pains and dilemmas of teenagers, but often with the distance and nostalgia of a father. These are his most successful stories; others, told from the point of view of the teenager, work less well, because the language sometimes seems forced and artificial.

Robert Wilson, in a review of "Eight Plus One," in Book World—The Washington Post, January 11, 1981, p. 7.

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Robert Cormier is a conspicuous oddity in his chosen field. Writing for the adolescent reader, he has departed from standard models and broken some of the most fundamental taboos of that vocation. Each of his hard-edged novels for the young goes considerably beyond the standard limits of "contemporary realism" to describe a world of painful harshness, where choices are few and consequences desperate. Moreover, his novels are unequivocally downbeat; [The Chocolate War, I Am the Cheese and After the First Death] violate the unwritten rule that fiction for the young, however sternly realistic the narrative material, must offer some portion of hope, must end at least with some affirmative message....

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Roger Sutton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Until very recently, simple romances were "out" in YA realism, replaced by novels about various social concerns: drug abuse, premarital sex, and so on. Instead of a character being the focus of the novel, a condition became the subject of examination. With individual books often described as "tough," "honest," and "hard-hitting," the genre became known as the "New Realism." Kenneth Donelson and Alleen Nilsen claim that not only had there been a shift in subject matter in the contemporary realistic novel for young adults, but that there had been a shift in fictional mode as well: from romantic to ironic, and sometimes tragic [see excerpt above].

Tragedy, cynicism, irony: certainly these were foreign...

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Zena Sutherland

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In [The Bumblebee Flies Anyway], a story that is as trenchant as it is poignant, Cormier shows the courage and desperation of adolescents who know that their deaths are imminent. Barney, sixteen, is the only patient who is in the experimental hospital who is not in the group of the doomed but is there as a control: all of them are there voluntarily, some to contribute to research and some, like Mazzo, hoping for a quick death…. Barney thinks of a plan that will give Mazzo the quick, daring death he wants; secretly he reconstructs a life-size model of a car from the dump next door, pulls the plug on Mazzo's life-support system, and helps him to the roof where the car waits to be pushed off for one last...

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Hazel Rochman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

With the grimmest of subjects Cormier has written his most affirmative novel [The Bumblebee Flies Anyway]…. The book has some serious flaws, notably in the depiction of Cassie, who we are told is "vibrant and compelling," but who remains an abstraction. But this is a fine novel, even better on rereading, with a startling poetry in the simplest phrases. Young adults will be caught up in the terrifying thriller, the scientific facts about memory, the controversial issue of medical ethics. They will also be moved by the vision in the wasteland: Barney's power to define himself and reach out, through love and knowledge and arduous painful struggle.

Hazel Rochman, in a...

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Sally Estes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Subtle foreshadowing and well-crafted metaphors and similes [in The Bumblebee Flies Anyway] enable readers to mentally visualize setting, action, and characters; and there is a rhythm to Cormier's writing that compels reader reaction much the way a musical score underlines emotion in films. The story's climactic blockbuster is marred only slightly by a double denouement—one weak, the other fitting. The depressing situation aside, the overall effect is one of a reaffirmation of the humanity of humankind that contrasts with the images projected by The Chocolate War, I Am the Cheese, and After the First Death. (p. 38)

Sally Estes, in a review of "The...

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W. Geiger Ellis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

What's a person to say? He's done it again. Cormier is Cormier. [The Bumblebee Flies Anyway] is consistent with his other successes by focusing on the struggle between individuals and an institution. Institutions are dehumanizing, but humans do not succumb easily—or necessarily. While the larger theme is unchanged, he has forced us to think in yet another arena, for the battle we see here involves the medical establishment. Yet it would be a disservice to suggest that Bumblebee is an exposé of the world of medicos; it explores the boundaries of human spirit together with the possibilities within these boundaries.

W. Geiger Ellis, in a review of "The Bumblebee...

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Nancy C. Hammond

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A master of taut, twisting plots and clear prose, [Cormier, an] inventive writer, creates sufficient mystery, deception, and irony [in The Bumblebee Flies Anyway] to rival the force of I Am the Cheese…. But because the narrative events are less ambiguous, the feelings less subtle, and the symbolism more obvious, the reader's discoveries are diminished. Although the Madonna-like Cassie and her parallel story are less convincing and some secondary characters are clichés, Barney and the others do come alive. And their ability to triumph in some measure over the depersonalizing situation represents a marked change from the author's previous work. (pp. 715-16)


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