Since I’ve never read The Chocolate War either I was happy to participate in the Chocolate War Read and Blog Along. It was one of my List of Shame Books (books I’m ashamed I haven’t actually read) though probably one of the least shameful. I won’t do a typical review as many of the things I look for in a book don’t apply to a book older than I am. How would I judge authenticity of voice?
So, instead some random thoughts:
First, I can see why this book has been challenged to hell and back. Disrespect for authority, smoking, masturbation references, the implication that adults in general, and religious figures specifically, don’t always have teens’ best interest at heart are all hot button issues. I guarantee they came up more in challenges than the actual violence in the book. Of course, most of these things were a much bigger deal in the 70s and 80s but challenges are still around.
Unsurprisingly The Chocolate War comes across as very dated. This is more observation than criticism, as it’s unavoidable to an extent. The names of characters are most likely to be shared with teens’ grandparents or an eccentric great-uncle than teens themselves. Of course the low prices and character’s use of the term “fellows” in reference to their peers is noticeable as well. I just wanted to get the poor treasurer a spreadsheet and was especially amused at the idea of reporting prank callers to the phone company. I wonder if these things would pull contemporary teen readers out of the story?
Gender roles are also pretty clearly old fashioned. Jerry and his father have a housekeeper not because they are wealthy, but because with Mom gone someone has to do the women’s work. You can’t expect Mr. Renault to work all day and then come home and cook and clean! I do feel the thing that dates The Chocolate War the most is the casual smoking. Many of the boys smoke out in the open and this is a normal everyday thing like it must have been then. I was somewhat relieved to see the young lady from the bus stop call him out when he set her creepy meter off, as he should since she’d never even spoken to him.
Also dated is the idea that teens see adulthood as a horrible trudge lacking excitement and waiting for death. Jerry clearly feels this way about his father’s life and we get hints about it from other characters as well. I can only imagine that this is some variety of the “Don’t trust anyone over 30” mindset. Modern teens are more likely to look forward to adulthood and embrace it’s possibilities that dread the responsibility.
This is not to say that The Chocolate War has nothing to offer. There are a lot of strong themes here about group-think, peer pressure, and the corruption of power. The impotence of school authorities and the emphasis on keeping up appearances reminded me of Daisy Whitney’s The Mockingbirds. Certainly much could be made of comparing The Chocolate War to Lord of the Flies. I do think that the best read-a-like might be Kirsten Miller’s How to Lead A Life of Crime. If you want more of power struggles, violence, and people wanting to get ahead no matter the price give it a try.
How To Lead a Life of Crime