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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.)
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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.
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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. (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.
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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. While I am the last person in the world to advocate parental censorship (anyway, it doesn't work) and while I am perfectly aware of all the worthy arguments that stress the need for relevance in juvenile fiction, I nevertheless find myself wondering first, why anybody would buy such a book for either his kid or himself, and second, whether the kid would read it if he did. Cormier's craft is considerable—so considerable, in fact, that it takes a brief, unsettling while to realize that we're actually back on that island with those same plucky youths, except that the island is now a bus and one of the youths is helpless and the other is neurotic. The terrorists are drawn with some care, and it takes a similar while to grasp that they, too, haven't really changed. However, despite their contemporary rhetoric and Cormier's attempts at humanizing interior monologues, murdering infants is all they can think of to do when the chips are down. Meanwhile, the behavior of the general commanding the rescue, who also happens to be the father of the neurotic boy, is bizarre to the point of brain damage. (This is understandable, for he is one of the villains too.)
As for the book's attracting a teen readership, therefore, I think not; The Hardy Boys Meet the Red Brigades and Get Killed and Go Nuts is hardly anybody's cup of tea. Doubtless a few teenagers will read it, and a few of them may actually finish it, but Cormier is aiming at an audience that exhibits an almost biological craving for fantasy and role models; and he provides neither. This is not to imply, by the way, that fantasy and role models are hostile to the purposes of literature or that the same book cannot serve both youth and age…. Cormier's problem is that he has linked a commendable seriousness of purpose and a gripping and workable plot with an antique shallowness of execution. It is a mixture that can only make the adults uneasy and put the kids to sleep.
L. J. Davis, "Hardy Boys Meet Red Brigade," in Book World—The Washington Post, May 13, 1979, p. K3.
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[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.
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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 moral side of things must prevail.
Recently, however, young adult works have begun to take a truly more realistic, at times frightening, and occasionally defiantly happy turn. Conventionally moral endings are not always provided; ambiguous or complex situations are allowed to remain so; and themes are a little more daring. (p. 125)
[The] novels of Robert Cormier have consistently transcended the limitations of the genre. He has avoided the thin characterizations and glib language that are so familiar to us perhaps because he is faithful to his own vision, writing more truly for himself than many other writers for this audience. He is unafraid to bring a story to its aesthetically inevitable conclusion, and his lucid prose style, which is easily accessible to adolescents, seems natural rather than contrived to catch the interests of that audience.
His newest work, After the First Death, continues the exploration of issues presented in his first two novels for adolescents. His preoccupation with the child as victim and with mind control will be familiar to his readers. In The Chocolate War, an untrained adolescent's cool observations of people's vulnerabilities allow him to exploit and control them. In I Am the Cheese, the manipulators are the forces of government, empowered to change and ultimately destroy lives in the name of national security. This newest work combines both forms of control. Cormier explores both the very personalized form of brutality and intimidation employed by international terrorists and the behind-the-scenes government manipulations that may engender and result from such terrorism.
The book recounts the events that occur when four foreign terrorists—Cormier doesn't specify their nationality—hijack a busload of children in order to exact political demands from the generals at a nearby army base. The work's main characters are two of the terrorists: Artkin, the professional, whose pseudonym suggests that he has divested himself of his natural feelings and made his cause his life, and Miro Shantas, an orphan, whom Artkin plucked from the streets and trained; Kate Forrester, the seventeen year old bus driver; and Ben Marchand, the son of the general to whom the terrorists are directing their demands. Cormier makes the link between personal relationships and the machinations and power struggles of government by balancing the father-son relationships of Artkin and Miro, and Ben and the general against the larger events of the novel, showing how each father ultimately sacrifices his son for his cause.
Artkin has created in the desperate child Miro a person with no identity except that of the terrorist, a "mirror" perhaps of Artkin, or of some elusive ideal. Miro's relationship with Artkin and Artkin's approval rest on his performing well as a terrorist, on not allowing himself any of the vulnerabilities of human feeling. As the young woman Kate discovers, Miro is a monster of innocence…. Cormier does not ask us to sympathize or forgive. In fact, he seems to have a special interest in the unforgivable. He is fascinated by the pathology. But, in this novel more than his earlier works, he explores the circumstances that nurture characters who stir our hatred and fear. He also forces us to consider the extent to which we are all manipulated by powers we seldom think about—powers invested in people like the well-meaning but misguided General Marchand, for example.
Marchand, the conscientious American psychologist turned general, is ultimately just as fanatical as Artkin. As a psychologist he has designed a process to monitor the behavior of the children in the local army school, and since his son attends, he knows the son's strengths and weaknesses well. When the moment of negotiation with the terrorists arrives, he is willing to use Ben as a go-between, knowing full well that the boy will crack when seized and tortured. He even gives the boy some incorrect information so that he will have something to confess. Once Ben's weakness and his father's dependence on it becomes apparent to him, he is irreparably damaged. He has lost his innocence in such a brutal way that there is no longer any help for him. As the Dylan Thomas epigraph to the book states, "After the first death, there is no other," and Ben, having endured extreme psychic and physical pain, having been reduced and victimized, can only contemplate suicide. The book opens, after the hijacking is over, with his journal to his father…. Finding the journal after his son has killed himself, Marchand imagines a surreal conversation between himself and the dead boy. Haunted by the suicide, Marchand tries to justify himself, and with the same rationale used by the terrorists, he explains: "I was serving my country. I am a patriot, Ben. I did it for my country. Not for myself." Ben answers with a colder clarity than he could achieve in life:
Is a country worth that much, Dad? How could I have gone through life knowing what I had done? Knowing that my cowardice had served my country? Where did that leave me, Dad?
I'm sorry, Ben. I was sorry as soon as I told you. As soon as I saw your face and realized what I had done. I though: I'll make it up to you. If it takes months, years. I'll earn your forgiveness.
And then I died….
The ambiguity of the "then" seems purposeful. After the death of his spirit, there was nothing left in Ben's mind but suicide.
As the excerpt above suggests, the form of narration is somewhat experimental. The book opens with Ben's journal and, after fifteen pages, shifts to Miro's perspective. Events from that point on are narrated in the third person, but through the alternating eyes of Kate and Miro, with brief returns to Ben and to the dialogue. The parts are skillfully juxtaposed, and it is with the discovery of each character's point of view and personality that the issues of the story emerge, with Cormier demonstrating how well-meaning people go about destroying each other in futile attempts to control their world.
Though the political concerns are adequately explored, Cormier's primary focus is on the individuals. He develops them, elicits sympathy for them, and then as often as not destroys them. One minor example involves one of the children on the bus. He draws a brief sketch of the boy, gives us a touching detail about him—he is anxious about being late because he has often heard himself referred to as a "late baby"—and then we see him led off the bus and shot. The effect is horrifying, but we can see the honesty of Cormier's method. He seems to be saying they are all individuals with histories, feelings, families, and it is only by forgetting this, by becoming numbed by rhetoric or by too much brutality in one's past, that human beings become capable of destroying so casually. So while one could argue that Cormier is too pessimistic a writer for adolescents, the book stands finally not as a cynical but a loving work. Cormier's portraits are deeply compassionate. Kate, who was braver than she ever thought she could be; Miro who killed her in a moment of pain because he couldn't stand to hear what she revealed to him about himself; and Ben who killed himself to stifle his sense of shame—all three are innocents who tried to live up to some impossible ideal fostered upon them by dangerously misguided adults. (pp. 139-44)
Geraldine DeLuca, "Taking True Risks: Controversial Issues in New Young Adult Novels," in The Lion and the Unicorn, Vol. 3, No. 2, Winter, 1979–80, pp. 125-48.∗
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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 honesty is basic to realism. He has also structured the novel masterfully; each incident builds up independently of the others, yet each contributes strength to the structure of the story, all with careful understatement. Cormier knows his craft; he has written a compelling novel.
But it is not realistic. In it there are no adults worth emulating; Jerry is the only decent kid, and he is victimized by his peers, with the cooperation of school officials. Only the ugly is presented through the novel's language, actions, and imagery; goodness and honor are never rewarded. Love and concern for other people is ignored, and hopelessness pervades the entire story. The presentation of people and events shows only the evil, the ugly, and the sordid. It is not appropriate for young people because it presents a distorted view of reality and because it lacks hope. (p. 214)
The language in the novel is ugly as well. It has become popular to "tell it like it is," and for some writers this means including the crude slang we know kids use. So Cormier uses much of it, but generally it is appropriate to its context and will probably not disturb the book's readers; kids can handle four-letter-words with greater ease than my generation can. However, I don't think it is necessary for a writer for young adults to feed back to them their own slang any more than it is necessary for a writer for five-year-olds to include the bathroom language he or she knows five-year-olds use and find titillating.
The actions of the characters are almost without exception ugly, exemplifying only the most sordid side of their natures. Our senses are assaulted by kinds cringing, sniveling, humiliating each other, stealing, and bullying. There are frequent references to masturbation and vomiting. Jerry, in particular, vomits a lot, an ugly picture but one that is perhaps in keeping with the one-sided view the book presents. The adults' actions are not as sordid, but they are as depressing. They nag, drink, sleep, watch television; they are trapped in dull jobs; they do dull things. None are involved in anything worthwhile with their children. People, we are told by Archie, "are two things: greedy and cruel." Cormier's people certainly are. (p. 215)
The Chocolate War has been compared to [John Knowles's] A Separate Peace and to [William Golding's] Lord of the Flies, which is expected. All deal with boys forming their own societal group complete with rules, taboos, value systems, and leaders—like any society.
But in A Separate Peace there are some sympathetic adults, adults to trust and to emulate. There is genuine, healthy rapport among the boys on the playing field. The book does not include tasteless language, and ugly incidents are limited to those essential to the story line. Finally, there are forgiveness and love to offset an otherwise harsh story.
Lord of the Flies tells an ugly story with cynical harshness, and it includes many ugly incidents and much ugly imagery, but it is set in a real jungle, on an island, with the boys completely cut off from adult intervention. The Chocolate War takes place in a large New England city, and involves more than eight hundred adults directly concerned with the society of boys. It goes beyond Lord of the Flies in that it suggests that adults are no more willing or capable of controlling their environment than are youngsters. It insinuates that it is possible that this many parents and teachers would be totally unconcerned about their own children or their students. It states not only that civilization can break down on an isolated island among a group of British school boys, but that it has broken down also for a large and diverse group of adults in a major American city.
This distorted view of humanity, this strange sense of what makes civilization work is hammered home by the conclusion of the story. Hints are given throughout that justice will finally triumph. Through foreshadowing we are led to believe that Jerry is going to win his battle, but this is just a trick of the author's. (p. 216)
[Jerry] does not win. He is brutally beaten and carried away broken and unconscious. The reader feels tricked. This completes Cormier's destruction of all that is good and honorable and becomes the most disturbing element in the book. Jerry, like us, is let down with a sickening thud.
So I struggle with The Chocolate War. I do not believe writers should be dictated to by librarians, by parents, by me, about what they should write. Yet I am disturbed by this book because, in spite of being brilliantly structured and skillfully written, it presents a distorted view of reality and a feeling of absolute hopelessness that is unhealthy….
It is as inaccurate to present only the sordid and call it realistic as it has been in the past to present only the idealistic. It is probably even more damaging. The Chocolate War endorses and supports the thesis that one is better off not struggling for what is right because one cannot win and thus is, in effect, an object lesson in futility. (p. 217)
Norma Bagnall, "Realism: How Realistic Is It? A Look at 'The Chocolate War'," in Top of the News, Vol. 36, No. 2, Winter, 1980, pp. 214-17.
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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 to grow that perhaps I was reading more into the names of characters than their creators ever intended…. As a way of checking my suspicions, I decided to write to an author and ask specifically about the process of creating names. I chose to write to Robert Cormier because of the craftsmanship shown in his three books: [The Chocolate War, I Am the Cheese, and After the First Death]…. Cormier is one of a relatively small number of contemporary authors for young readers who makes use of the full range of techniques available to skilled literary artists. (p. 3)
[A] specific question that I put to him was whether he had named the evil gang in The Chocolate War the Vigils as an ironic reference to vigil lights which are the devotional candles placed before shrines or images. When I read the book, I was struck with an image of the boys in the gang standing like vigil lights before their leader, Archie, who basked in the glow of their admiration. If Cormier had intended this comparison, it would have been consistent with the many other religious references in the book which highlighted the irony of there being so much evil in a religious school. Cormier answered that he chose the name because it was a shortened form of vigilante. Nevertheless he agrees that the religious connotation is there and in looking back he realizes, "that the devotional aspect of vigils was also very much a part of my choice." (pp. 3-4)
Cormier says he loves contrasts, sharp ones, in both his characters' names and the names of his books, for example the sweet Chocolate and the devastating War. And when he is choosing names he will choose the harsh, hard sounds for the villains like Archie and softer sounds for someone like Jerry. When he named Brother Leon in The Chocolate War, he was looking for "a bland soft name to contrast with Archie because Leon was a bland-appearing man. And so is evil bland in its many disguises." In Cormier's latest book, After the First Death, he again relied on contrast for the name of General Mark Marchand, "the harsh Mark and the soft Marchand, the contrast I often seek because we are all made of shares of softnesses and hardnesses."…
When Cormier has a background character who is important not as a unique personality but more for the particular role played, then he will rely on a fairly obvious name as he did with Stroll in After the First Death. He chose the name because it suggested coolness and casualness even during difficult times. He wrote that in I Am the Cheese he very deliberately devised the name of Brint to suggest someone bloodless and cold, cf. flint and glint….
Since authors live much longer with the characters than do readers, chances are that an author will think about names at a deeper symbolic level than will most readers. For example, Cormier says that as far fetched as it now seems, one of the images that occurred to him when he chose the name for I Am the Cheese was that of "Swiss cheese full of holes as Adam was full of psychological holes." This comparison probably occurred to very few readers, but when Cormier chose the name of Adam's girlfriend, Amy Hertz, he had in mind the double meaning, "hurts," because he knew when he introduced her that she would have the power to hurt Adam. She didn't, yet readers write in to him asking if she were part of the plot. They are suspicious because of the telephone call she made from her father's office. They want to know if the call was as innocent as she claimed it to be. How much of their suspicion was aroused by Amy's last name and how much by other factors in the book is impossible to know. (p. 4)
Alleen Pace Nilsen, "The Poetry of Naming in Young Adult Books," in The ALAN Review, Vol. 7, No. 3, Spring, 1980, pp. 3-4, 31.∗
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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 inevitable. To see the book as something "which could happen at a private boys' school in the 1970s when one student decides to flout the system" is to confuse setting with substance and plot device with purpose.
Cormier persistently uses figurative language as one device to remind the reader that the meaning of the book is not limited to the confines of the story line or the campus of Trinity High. After Archie decides that Jerry Renault's first assignment will be to refuse to sell chocolates, Obie notices that "the shadows of the goal posts definitely resembled a network of crosses, empty crucifixes." This reference to the central symbol of Christianity should certainly suggest that more is at issue than merely the selling of chocolates. When Jerry, defying the Vigils, announces he still will not accept the candy, the effect is cataclysmic: "Cities fell. Earth opened. Planets tilted. Stars plummeted." The author has clearly moved the action from the campus to the cosmos.
The metaphorical quality of the three power structures within the school is spelled out specifically and hinted at obliquely. The most obvious symbol is the athletic department, which provides for the testing of individuals, including each one's willingness and ability to withstand physical abuse. The football field is an arena where violence is ritualized, sanctioned, and even demanded. After the brutal fight in which Jerry is physically beaten and psychologically destroyed, he warns his friend to "play ball." This metaphor, taken from sports, is not restricted to the game but encapsulates the lesson Jerry has so painfully learned: he had better cooperate with the power structure or he will be crushed.
The most significant object in the story is the poster in Jerry's locker that asks: Do I Dare Disturb the Universe? When Cormier introduces it he describes it in detail, suggesting through Jerry's uncertainty that the caption may be subject to various interpretations. The question does not remain idle, tucked away in Jerry's locker, but is raised repeatedly when anyone—Jerry, his father, his classmates, his teachers—either challenges or bows to the demands of the establishment. Jerry ponders, expands, and twists the quote, and as his definition of the universe grows and changes, he realizes he is not just a single individual but a part of an interlocking social order. Following Jerry's ruminations, readers gain similar insight into the book's intent and theme. Cormier is clearly not writing about this existential question solely within the context of an isolated secondary school, but as it is applicable to the larger world.
Bagnall's criticism that The Chocolate War is not realistic is equally insupportable. She claims Cormier's work is distorted because "only the ugly is presented … goodness and honor are never rewarded."
Northrop Frye claims that "the world of literature is a world where there is no reality except that of the human imagination…. There are two halves to literary experience. Imagination gives us both a better and a worse world than the one we usually live with, and demands that we keep looking steadily at them both." If Cormier chooses to concentrate on the "worse world," he is exercising a literary privilege claimed by many major writers since Sophocles. Although this is not the only side of reality, it is certainly a significant one and remains a persisting concern of authors because it is a persisting component of human behavior.
It may be desirable for a library collection to encompass the full spectrum of human imagination, but such a comprehensive range cannot be reasonably required of every individual work. Condemning Cormier for ignoring the sunnier aspects of human behavior is as inappropriate as castigating [Helen] Cresswell for avoiding serious matters in The Bagthorpe Saga.
Literary realism is not journalistic reporting…. [Novelists] choose particular elements of the world—distill, concentrate, and juxtapose them in such a manner as to illuminate a particular facet of the human condition. This, it seems to us, is exactly what Robert Cormier accomplishes in his junior novels, remaining well within the tradition of literary realism.
In The Chocolate War he has chosen to focus on tyranny and evil—not as vague abstractions, but given flesh and substance in the persons of Brother Leon and Archie. Bagnall disapproves of Cormier's concentration on that which is displeasing and concludes that the book is inappropriate for youngsters because its language, actions, and imagery are ugly. 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. Consequently, the language and images are disturbing, but then, so is tyranny. To mask evil with delicate similes would only diminish its potency, and to introduce a noble adult to save the day would truly be unrealistic.
Bagnall contends "The Chocolate War endorses and supports the thesis that one is better off not struggling for what is right because one cannot win and thus is, in effect, an object lesson in futility." Such a reading makes sense only if Jerry's destruction is inevitable. The reason Jerry was not saved was because he stood alone. But he need not have been alone, as Cormier states clearly and with consummate irony through the words of Brother Leon when he falsely accuses Bailey of cheating. The boys at Trinity could have come to Jerry's defense, if they had not lacked courage. Mr. Renault could have saved his son if he had not been so self-absorbed. The brothers could have checked Leon's ambitions if they had had the will. No one did. Jerry paid a terrible price for everyone else's inadequacies.
Robert Cormier does not leave his readers without hope, but he does deliver a warning: they may not plead innocence, ignorance, or prior commitments when the threat of tyranny confronts them. He does not imply that resistance is easy, but he insists it is mandatory. (pp. 283-85)
Betty Carter and Karen Harris, "Realism in Adolescent Fiction: In Defense of 'The Chocolate War'," in Top of the News, Vol. 36, No. 3, Spring, 1980, pp. 283-85.
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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….
Known for flaunting formulas and writing honestly, Cormier produces works too strong for some adults who still try to offer youth a protected image of reality. But out of the same integrity that turns stomachs in The Chocolate War comes a beautiful portrait of a girl in the character of Kate Forrester in After the First Death. Cormier does not evade the sexual attraction issue. Kate and Miro develop an interest in each other that Cormier expected would become a love story…. But yielding to the forces at work in the novel, he wrote it differently. The point should be made clearly that sexual attraction or not is irrelevant; female identity, like male identity involves sexuality but is not to be reduced to sexuality.
In After the First Death the catalyst for self-awareness and identity-achievement is the crisis situation in which Kate must summon all her resources for her own survival and that of the children on the school bus. The problems she confronts—the conflict between her desire for personal survival and her feeling of responsibility for the children, her effort to penetrate the mental machinations of a terrorist and subvert them, her consciousness of the weakness of her own body—all suggest that her achievement can best be seen in full-fledged human terms, a concept of identity that goes beyond sexuality. (p. 25)
Myra L. Kibler, "Female Identity in the Young Adult Novel," in The ALAN Review, Vol. 8, No. 1, Fall, 1980, pp. 25, 32.∗
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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 as much as his adult fans. Still, Mr. Cormier is a very special writer.
Leigh Dean, in a review of "Eight Plus One," in Children's Book Review Service, Vol. 9, No. 3, November, 1980, p. 26.
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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 something of value?
Robert Cormier was praised by The Kirkus Reviews because he dared to "disturb the upbeat universe of juvenile books" with The Chocolate War. He did not compromise by providing a falsely hopeful conclusion, nor did he sidestep the issue by leaving it open for readers to imagine their own happy ending. Until Cormier, most writers for young readers had opted for one of these two approaches. (pp. 187-88)
The plot of a book must be examined to see how closely it grows out of the characters' actions and attitudes. Is it an idea that could easily have been dropped into another setting or onto other characters? With Cormier's book, there wouldn't have been a story without the unique but believable personalities of both Jerry and Archie, as well as of Brother Leon. The problem was not so bizarre or unusual that it overshadowed the characters, nor were the characters such unusual people that readers could not identify with them or imagine themselves having to deal with people like them. It is because the characters at first appear to be such ordinary people that readers are drawn into the story. The theme is similar to that in [William] Golding's Lord of the Flies, but because Golding's book is set on a deserted island in the midst of a war it could be dismissed as unrealistic. Cormier's book has an immediacy that is hard to deny. The problem is a real one that teenagers can identify with on the first or literal level, yet it has implications far beyond one beaten-up fourteen-year-old and 20,000 boxes of stale Mother's Day candy.
It's common in evaluating a book to question the role of the setting. Is it just there or does it contribute something to the mood or the action or to revealing characterization? In The Chocolate War the story would not have been nearly so chilling without the religious setting. It provided contrast. In some ways the evil in Archie is less hideous than that in Brother Leon, the corrupt teacher who enlists Archie's help in making his unauthorized investment pay off. The brother hides behind his clerical collar and his role of teacher and assistant headmaster, whereas Archie only identifies himself as a nonbeliever in the so-called "Christian ethic." For example, when his stooge Obie asks him how he can do the things he does and still take communion, he responds, "When you march down to the rail, you're receiving the Body, man. Me, I'm just chewing a wafer they buy by the pound in Worcester."
Another question especially relevant in respect to books for young readers is the respect the author has for the intended audience. Cormier showed a great deal of respect for his readers: nowhere did he write down to them. The proof of his respect for them is in some of the subtle symbolization that he worked into the story and the care with which he developed his style. For example, the irony of the whole situation is exemplified in the gang's name, the Vigils. The word is cognate with vigilant and vigorous, which certainly Archie is, but its origin is in religious language where it meant the keeping of a watch on the night preceding a religious holiday. Today, vigil lights are candles placed devotionally before a shrine or image. This is comparable to the way that the members of the gang stand before Archie, who basks in the glow of their admiration. Another example of Cormier's subtlety is the fact that Archie's name has such meanings as "principal or chief" as in arch-villain, "cleverly sly and alert," and "at the extreme, that is, someone or something most fully embodying the qualities of its kind." (pp. 188-89)
Kenneth L. Donelson and Alleen Pace Nilsen, "The New Realism: Of Life and Other Sad Songs," in their Literature for Today's Young Adults, Scott, Foresman and Company, 1980, pp. 181-204.∗
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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. 34, No. 4, December, 1980, pp. 67-8.
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[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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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. Affirmation is hard to find in Cormier's work, and conventional hopefulness is quite irrelevant to it.
But while these sharp breaks with accepted practice have been much noted by reviewers, and have furnished Cormier's reputation for bleakness, curiously little notice has been taken of another, and, to my mind, equally interesting departure from the norm in his novels. Quite aside from his attitudes and conclusions, Cormier is a maverick in the field of adolescent literature because he is writing what are, at bottom, political novels. George Orwell once claimed that there is no such thing as a "genuinely nonpolitical literature," but the dictum seems to me inapplicable to most writing for young adults. A consistent feature of almost the whole body of adolescent literature is its isolation from the political and societal, its nearly total preoccupation with personality. The typical adolescent novel is wrapped tightly around the individual and the personal; questions of psychological development and personal morality dominate the genre. In fact, most authors of adolescent literature seem to take for their model adolescents themselves, with their paramount interest in self, individual morality, interior change, and personality.
Cormier, on the other hand, is far more interested in the systems by which a society operates than he is in individuals. His novels center on the interplay between individuals and their context, between the needs and demands of the system and the needs and rights of individuals—in other words, on the political context in which his characters, like all of us, must live. He is, obviously, concerned with moral questions, but the morality involved is of a wholly different order from the purely personal moral concerns of most teen novels.
Cormier's political cast of mind explains the relative unimportance of characterization in his work. Inner character is less to him than situation. In Chocolate War, for example, the wellsprings of Archie's evil are never adequately explained, and Jerry's motivation for his lonely rebellion, while plausible enough, is not dwelt upon at any great length. Certainly it is not the centerpiece of the narrative, as it would be in most teen novels. Adam, of I Am the Cheese, is more a victim than a protagonist. If we care about what happens to him, it is not because of any crucial internal decision he must make, but precisely because he is the helpless victim of processes he cannot affect, let alone control, and because we recognize the circumstances of his tragedy as part of the world we actually live in. In After the First Death, characterization is again—as several critics have complained—clearly secondary to the situation set out in the novel, and to Cormier's view of the commitments and choices that have brought about that situation. (pp. 74-5)
The evil in Chocolate War is initiated by individuals, but not contained in them. Archie and Brother Leon are manipulators: Archie manipulates the Vigils, Brother Leon manipulates his students; together, during the chocolate sale, they manipulate the whole school. Yet neither could work his will without the cooperation of others. The acquiescence of the community is essential to their power, as the classroom scene makes clear. In an episode that is a virtual cliche in school stories, Brother Leon singles out a student for torment, accusing him of cheating, mocking and humiliating him, while the rest of the class laughs uncomfortably. If this were all, the scene would simply establish (without much originality) that Brother Leon is the kind of teacher who abuses the power of his position for some private satisfaction. But Cormier's interest here is not really Brother Leon, still less the reasons for his abuse of position. What he wants to demonstrate is the source of the power, which is, of course, the students themselves. The harassment goes on exactly as long as the class lets it; when at last one student speaks up in mild protest, the spell breaks. And it is Brother Leon himself who points the moral, asking contemptuously why no one had objected sooner, suggesting the parallel with Nazi Germany.
Still, the message of the novel as a whole is neither so simple nor so hopeful as the episode might imply. If it were, then Jerry's lone dissent would succeed, would break the combined power of Archie and Brother Leon—and would place the novel squarely in the long American tradition of the triumphant lonely hero tale. Instead, there is that final scene which laid the cornerstone of Cormier's reputation for bleakness: Jerry carried away on a stretcher, his face too battered to allow him to speak the message he wants to convey to Goober…. The lone dissent has not only failed, it is repudiated. The American Adam is brought low; Huck Finn turns Jim over to the slave-catchers, Gary Cooper lies in his own blood in the street at high noon—no wonder the reviewers gasped. In one brief, bitter paragraph, Cormier has abandoned an enduring American myth to confront his teenaged readers with life as it more often is—with the dangers of dissent, the ferocity of systems as they protect themselves, the power of the pressure to conform.
In his second novel, I Am the Cheese, Cormier dispenses with metaphor. This stark tale comments directly on the real world of government, organized crime, large-scale bureaucracy, the apparatus of control, secrecy, betrayal, and all the other commonplaces of contemporary political life. Its message is, if possible, even less ambiguous than Chocolate War's. The most optimistic reader will find it hard to locate an exit as the story moves to a conclusion. Adam is doomed, as his parents were; he will be "obliterated" one way or another because he is a threat to one or possibly to both of the systems with which his life is entangled. There is certainly some ambiguity about the role played in this tragedy by Mr. Grey, supposedly the family's government protector. Might he have been instead their betrayer? Which side did he really work for? As the narrative rolls coldly on, it occurs to the reader that it hardly matters. And this is clearly Cormier's point. The two systems are equally impersonal, and equally dangerous to the human being caught between them. What matters to the organization—either organization—is its own survival, not Adam's.
I Am the Cheese is the most Kafka-esque of Cormier's three novels. The narrative technique, combined with a nearly overwhelming sense of loneliness, helplessness, and hopelessness give the novel a surreal quality. When his parents are murdered, Adam is left in a world empty of human figures; he has only memories of those few he has loved and lost. It is as though he were alone in a computer room where every machine is programmed to cancel him out; he is like a mouse in a maze, searching for an opening, unaware that every exit has been blocked. The language of the "psychiatrist's" reports, bleached of emotional accuracy, underlines the impersonal, bureaucratic character of Adam's cold enemies. And when Adam's trip to Vermont is revealed for what it is, a bicycle ride within the fenced grounds of the institution where he is confined, the sense of nightmare recalls [Franz] Kafka's terrifying world.
After the First Death both reiterates and extends concepts found in the earlier books. The plot is built around an episode of political terrorism—the ultimate weapon of an outnumbered dissident group—directed against the technically superior, equally purposeful security apparatus of the established government. In the course of the story, Cormier explores the outer limits of patriotism and the inner perception of fanaticism. Here, as in the first two novels, Cormier shows privileged position and privileged information used to manipulate the weak and the unwary. Here, as in I Am the Cheese, the discussion of political evil is cast in fiercely contemporary terms, and the shadow of statism stretches long over the narrative.
One episode brings into sharp focus concepts central to this novel and also, I think, to Cormier's general outlook. The scene takes place between Miro, the young terrorist, and Kate, the girl who is to become Miro's "first death." The tentative human relationship created between them when Kate encourages Miro to talk about his past dissolves abruptly when Kate recognizes the depth and the terrible simplicity of Miro's dedication to his political purpose. For the sake of a country he has never seen, and never really expects to see, Miro has made himself into an instrument of guerrilla warfare. Save for his mentor, Artkin, he has no connection with the actual world of human life, nor does he expect any. He envisions no future for himself, takes no interest in his own qualities except as they make him an efficient weapon in a struggle whose political terms he cannot possibly know. He has no feeling for the innocent victims, past or potential, of the undeclared "war" he wages; indeed, he cannot even understand what it is Kate expects him to feel for them. In short, as Kate realizes with shock, he is "a monster." Not only monstrous, Miro is innocent as well:
The greatest horror of all was that he did not know he was a monster. He had looked at her with innocent eyes as he told her of killing people. She'd always thought of innocence as something good, something to cherish. People mourned the death of innocence … But innocence, she saw now, could also be evil. Monstrous….
The attitude toward innocence explicitly expressed in this passage seems to me to underlie all three of Cormier's books and goes far to explain his break with prevailing standards for adolescent novels. Like Kate, most literature for the young has assumed that innocence, particularly in the young, is desirable, and that its loss is a regrettable, if inevitable, part of the transition from childhood to adult life. The celebration of innocence is a romantic attitude, of course, and one that has been losing ground, even in children's literature, for many decades. But Cormier is forcing the pace considerably in his work and it is political, rather than personal innocence that he is talking about. He is saying that political innocence is a dangerous quality, that it can be a kind of collaboration with evil, that innocence is often acquiescence through moral neutrality in the abuse of power by the powerful, and in the sacrifice of the individual to the political organization.
In this novel, Miro's awful innocence has a parallel in the other "monster" of the story, Ben's father, General Marchand. Like the terrorists, the General has dedicated his life to the service of his country; like Artkin, he has extended his own commitment to his son's life, which becomes forfeit to the State's needs. (pp. 75-8)
When is it that such men as Artkin and Miro and Marchand become monsters? It is not when they murder or lie or torture, but earlier, at the point where they make the initial choice to surrender their moral will to the State. They disavow their humanity in the same moment that they seal their innocence by choosing never to question nor even to contemplate questioning. Cormier makes it abundantly clear that, in the political context they have accepted, the General's decisions and Artkin's are not only logical, they are correct. It is humanly that the choices are monstrous. Ben's suicide, Raymond's murder, and Kate's death are Cormier's comment on the human cost of political abstraction; in the end, he tells us, the price is often paid by those who have been given no choice in the matter.
Cormier's teen novels are not "great books"; I doubt that they will outlast their topical relevance. But they are important books just the same. Cormier writes of things few books for the young acknowledge at all. He has evoked a political world in which evil is neither an individual phenomenon nor a personality fault explainable by individual psychology, but a collaborative act between individuals and political systems which begins when the individual gives over to the system the moral responsibility that is part of being human. He suggests that innocence can be a moral defect, that evil is (as Hannah Arendt has said) banal, and, above all, that political bureaucracies are often—perhaps always—a potential danger to individual freedom because they are fundamentally committed to their own perpetuation, which is always threatened by individual dissent. (pp. 79-80)
Neither the issues Cormier poses nor the answers he implies belong to the same moral world as the themes of adjustment, acceptance, and understanding that undergird most adolescent fiction. Instead, his work opens again the complex questions of the function of literature and of whether that function varies with the age of the intended reader. Cormier's three adolescent novels answer for him…. (p. 80)
Anne Scott MacLeod, "Robert Cormier and the Adolescent Novel," in Children's literature in education, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Summer), 1981, pp. 74-81.
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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 to Betty Cavanna's Diane Graham or [Rosamond] du Jardin's Tobey Heydon. But are they that typical of the teen problem novel? How often, really, does the bad guy win out?…
It is self-deluding to call these novels tragic, and those critics who claim that the New Realism is characterized by a tragic or ironic mode engage in critical mythmaking. Though they may speak to such problems as runaways and prostitution, problem novels are usually about solutions to those problems, and about the integration of the wayward (or waylaid) protagonist into responsible, adult society. They are therefore more properly defined as belonging to the mode of low mimetic comedy, that of most popular fiction and certainly that of the teen novel of the 1950s. Taking these books too seriously is not a harmless endeavor; it deludes us into thinking that we are giving young adults truly substantial literature, rather than simply entertaining them. (p. 33)
"What about Robert Cormier?" is a question that must be raised here. Cormier has, to my mind, unreasonably become a symbol for all that is good and bad in adolescent literature. His books are certainly not typical of the New Realism, for two reasons. They have unhappy endings and, as Anne MacLeod has noted [see excerpt above], his books do not concern "the individual and the personal," do not concern themselves for the most part with "psychological development and personal morality," a major preoccupation of typical realistic novels for teens. Yet, Betsy Hearne cited The Chocolate War … as indicative of a "trend of didactic negativity." Donelson and Nilsen call the same novel a "touchstone example" of the problem novel [see excerpt above], and Rebecca Lukens, using Cormier as her example, claims that "the world-view in popular literature has flipped," to a view in which "the pervasive forces of the unseen and the sinister are in control."
Cormier's three novels for adolescents all tell compellingly of a universe where the good guys lose. But under the grim, no-win surface lies a very conventional, respectable morality: wrong may triumph over right, but the reader is certainly shown which is which.
Jerry, in The Chocolate War, refuses to sell candy for the parochial school fund drive. He is the only student who won't, and in the end he is brutally beaten in a rigged fight witnessed by the entire school. Jerry, the good guy, loses. He goes down fighting, though, and his defeat only shows more clearly the difference between him and the bad guys, who can triumph only through the use of physical force. This is a very simple book: Readers know who to root for all the way. What if, though, Jerry gave in and became the best chocolate salesman of them all? This kind of ironic sophistication, while commonplace in fiction for adults, is absent from Cormier's work and from adolescent literature in general.
When adolescent novels do trade in tragedy, they do so in a very safe way, encouraging readers to identify with an innocent protagonist. All of Cormier's protagonists are virtuous and brave and all of them—even the terrorist Miro in After the First Death …—are trying to do the right thing. They are not victims of their own mistakes or tragic flaws so much as they are victims of an evil beyond their control…. Even the most grim, most tragic novels for teenagers leave readers unchallenged and inviolate. They arouse passions of indignation at the evil actions of others, yet do not make the reader confront himself as anything less, or more, than innocent. Things can go wrong, these tragic novels say, but it's not your fault. (pp. 34-5)
Let us stop pretending that we are offering teenagers "hard-hitting," "shattering" realism and let us stop talking about "tragic" when we just mean sad. We don't often offer truly challenging realism to young adults, but we have talked and written ourselves into believing it is so. (p. 35)
Roger Sutton, "The Critical Myth: Realistic YA Novels," in School Library Journal, Vol. 29, No. 3, November, 1982, pp. 33-5.∗
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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 glorious flight. The story, which has an element of twin telepathy, involves questions of medical ethics and freedom of choice, and ends with Barney, who in the course of his treatments and his conversation with his doctor, has learned that he too is going to die, remembering with persistent joy, despite his gray fog of pain, the beauty of the flight, his last achievement. This is, although it is tragic, a stunning book: Cormier creates convincingly the hospital world of the terminally ill, the pathos of Barney's love for Cassie [Mazzo's twin sister] and his struggles with the hallucinations induced by the treatments that are designed to block his knowledge and help him forget his true condition. It moves, with relentless inevitability, like an ancient Greek tragedy, with the compassion of the staff a contrapuntal note, to the requiem of hopeless despair that, for each patient, still holds some passion for an affirmative act of life. (pp. 3-4)
Zena Sutherland, in a review of "The Bumblebee Flies Anyway," in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, Vol. 37, No. 1, September, 1983, pp. 3-4.
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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 review of "The Bumblebee Flies Anyway," in School Library Journal, Vol. 30, No. 1, September, 1983, p. 132.
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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 Bumblebee Flies Anyway," in Booklist, Vol. 80, No. 1, September 1, 1983, pp. 37-8.
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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 Flies Anyway," in The ALAN Review, Vol. 11, No. 1, Fall, 1983, p. 23.
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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)
Nancy C. Hammond, in a review of "The Bumblebee Flies Anyway," in The Horn Book Magazine, Vol. LIX, No. 6, December, 1983, pp. 715-16.
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