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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 444

Lori and Eric Poole travel through much of New England in Tenderness, with the prison for juvenile criminals, Eric Poole's aunt's house, and parks being the principal locations for the novel's action. Eric Poole, as the institution's lone murderer, is housed on a floor separate from the one where other inmates are incarcerated. He keeps himself aloof from the other inmates, so he knows something is amiss when he sees another young man on his floor. While Poole is not characterized as a model prisoner, he does seem to stay out of trouble until he passes juvenile status, is released with a clean slate, and assumes the privileges of a free adult. He is periodically interviewed at the prison by Lieutenant Proctor, a specialist in serial killings who is worried by Eric Poole's utter lack of remorse for the murders of his mother and stepfather. These interviews are fun for Poole; he enjoys verbally toying with the police officer.

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When Poole goes to his aunt's former home after leaving prison, he behaves much more like a caged animal there than when jailed, perhaps because he knows that he could leave his aunt's home anytime, whereas he had no choice but to remain in prison until his eighteenth birthday. He can see from the windows of this house signs held by his loving supporters—mostly girls, for whom he has great contempt—as well as the signs of those who despise him. News reporters also station themselves outside the house. Eventually, he sees Lori, someone from his past that he cannot quite remember, watching for him from beneath a willow tree.

Poole's murders tend to occur in bushy or wooded areas, relaxed settings where he can be "tender" with his victims. These tranquil settings and the scenes in peaceful parks at the end of the novel only intensify the horror of the gruesome deeds he commits and hopes to commit in them. He and Lori watch a couple in a canoe languidly float about while he contemplates killing Lori. He even buys her food from a hot dog cart, an act traditionally associated with serene interludes for romantic couples. Later, at another park, Lori enjoys a ride on a Ferris wheel, again an activity associated with carefree fun, while Poole stalks a woman he plans to kill and then, if he follows his pattern, have sex with. Poole and Lori, at the end of the book, again visit a park where they paddle about in a canoe. Here, in the midst of a traditionally romantic activity, Lori—ever the fool—takes off her life jacket and in the process tumbles in the water and drowns.

Literary Qualities

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If explicit, hard-minded, realistic presentation is a literary quality, then Tenderness has plenty of it. Lori's unvarnished revelations about herself and her sex life are but preludes to the harsher realities of the novel; her comments shock like a slap on the arm before being given an injection. The subsequent examination of the thoughts of a serial killer is appalling in its verisimilitude.

As in In the Middle of the Night (1995; see separate entry, Vol 9), Tenderness has two narrative voices, one in the first person and limited to a single character's point of view and the other in the third person, able to move from one character's thoughts to another's. Lori, the first-person narrator, notes at one point that a favorite teacher had told her "that I had a talent for writing and should keep a journal." This is to explain her vivid, although disjointed, writing style. Her narrative is used to greater effect than the first-person narration in In the Middle of the Night; it slowly dovetails with the third-person narration until the two accounts breathlessly race along together.

Social Sensitivity

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Tenderness is socially sensitive from beginning to end as it touches on teenage sexuality, prostitution, out-of-wedlock pregnancies, thievery, envy, betrayal, alcoholism, men beating their girlfriends, faking child abuse, torture, killing trusting pets, murdering young women for sexual pleasure, and sex with dead girls. The novel has plenty in it to offend people. Cormier could with some fairness be accused of using teenage sexuality to attract readers; parts of the book seem titillating. The actions and rationalizations of both Lori and Eric Poole travel beyond disturbing into the nightmare realm of the utterly sickening. Looking at this graphic brutality from another perspective shows that Cormier has chosen to discuss important topics in an honest and forthright way. The young adult audience for which it is intended often craves honesty over genteel good taste. Cormier treats the minds and emotions of these readers with great respect, and this novel is an example of his trying to communicate to them critical aspects of undisguised human experience. The primary interest of a book such as Tenderness is not really sensational depictions of depravity, but rather the ruthlessly honest presentation of real-world issues and problems uncloaked by condescension.

As for whether Tenderness is appropriate reading for any particular young person, that person's maturity and interests are probably the best guide. If a reader of any age cannot understand Poole's vile rationalizations for what they are, the book may be no more than a nightmare or the inspiration for them. For a reader who is becoming more independent-minded and worldly though, the graphic detail on how a young adult's life can be ruined or even destroyed by misplaced trust may help he or she to make somewhat wiser and more intelligent judgments of other people. Literature for young adults often makes the point that an ugly exterior may harbor something beautiful, but possibly a greater danger comes from the common response to physical beauty—that the spirit clothed by gorgeous flesh is beautiful too. This is a valuable lesson in a society in which young people are sometimes murdered for their shoes or raped by a glib and good-looking acquaintance. Behind the handsome face, fine hair, and twinkling eyes of a friendly stranger may be Eric Poole or one of the real life serial killers who prey on young adults. It would be bad if the novel made someone paranoid, but caution and good sense are far from paranoia. If the novel helps even one youngster make a life-saving decision, even without knowing how close the danger was, then Tenderness was worth the reading.

For Further Reference

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 387

Campbell, Patricia J. Presenting Robert Cormier. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989 (first edition 1985). (Twayne United States Authors Series, 496.) Campbell offers analyses of Cormier's writings for young people through Fade. It includes an extensive bibliography.

Cormier, Robert. "Creating Fade." Horn Book, 65 (1989): 166-173. Cormier explains how he wrote one of his novels for young adults, from inspiration to difficulties shaping the story.

Gallo, Donald R. "Reality and Responsibility: The Continuing Controversy over Robert Cormier's Books for Young Adults." Voice of Youth Advocates 7 (1984): 245-247. (Reprinted in The VOYA Reader. Edited by Dorothy M. Broderick. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1990, pp. 153- 160.) Gallo explores the elements in Cormier's fiction for young adults that make it controversial.

Iskander, Sylvia Patterson. "Readers, Realism, and Robert Cormier." Children's Literature 15 (1987): 7-18. Iskander covers the reasons Cormier's books for young readers have been censored.

"Robert Cormier." In Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography: Broadening Views, 1968-1988. Edited by Laura Ingram. Detroit: Gale Research, 1989, pp. 1934-1951. Discusses Cormier's life and the reception of his writings.

Isensee, Reinhard. "Literary Models in Young Adult Literature: Robert Cormier." Studien Gesellschaftswissenschaften 2 (1990): 98-103. Analyzes Cormier's typical themes.

MacLeod, Anne Scott. "Robert Cormier and the Adolescent Novel." Children's Literature in Education 12 (1981): 74-81. MacLeod uncovers some of the major issues in Cormier's fiction as exemplified by The Chocolate War, I Am the Cheese, and After the First Death.
Monseau, Virginia R. "Cormier's Heroines." ALAN Review Fall 1991: 40- 43. Monseau analyzes Cormier's characterizations of females in After the First Death and The Bumblebee Flies Anyway.

Self, David. "Writing Dangerously: David Self Talks to the Novelist Robert Cormier." Times Educational Supplement 11 (November 1988): 53. An interview that covers the ethics of the subject matter of Cormier's novels for young people.

Silvey, Anita. "An Interview with Robert Cormier." Horn Book 61 (1985): 145-155 and 289-296. This interview covers influences on Cormier's fiction.

Stines, Joe. "Robert Cormier." In Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Writers for Children Since 1960: Fiction. Edited by Glenn E. Estes. Detroit: Gale, 1986, pp. 107-114. Covers Cormier's early career.

Sutton, Roger. "Kind of a Funny Dichotomy': A Conversation with Robert Cormier." School Library Journal 37 (1991): 28-33. Cormier talks about his characterizations, as well as his career.

Veglahn, Nancy. "The Bland Face of Evil in the Novels of Robert Cormier." Lion and the Unicorn 12 (1988): 12-18. Evil is an important theme in Cormier's writings, and this article examines how evil is presented in Cormier's fiction for young adults.

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