Re-Read: Nowhere High Series. So ’90s!

A Review (kind of) of the Nowhere High series, by Jesse Maguire

Ivy (Ballantine), 1989-1992

Nowhere High series Jesse Maguire

By REBECCA, October 17, 2012

Sometimes I feel like Crunchings & Munchings really exists so that I can talk about all the ’90s-era books series that I loved so much as a kid but that never really slotted into “classic YA” enough that anyone talks about them (I won’t speak for you, Tessa, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the ’90s figure pretty heavily into your C&M joy too). In that tradition, then, today I bring you the Nowhere High series—a series that, as far as I know, none of my friends growing up ever read, making it impossible for me to describe any of their hair as being “the color of eucalyptus tree bark—sort of silvery brown” and have them know what I was talking about (6). Anyhoosier, the Nowhere High books were a staple of my ’90s childhood, but much to my shock, when I tried to look the books up to write this review, I saw that there were a seventh and eighth book in the series that I never read. I must get my hands on them immediately!

The deal is this: when TJ McAllister moves to rural Pennsylvania from L.A., he finds himself on the wrong side of a group of pants-snatching, mud-slinging dudes after his first day at Ernest Norwell (“Nowhere”) High. TJ soon meets Caroline Buchanan (Caro), the girlfriend of the school badass who doesn’t seem to care about anyone; Josh Hickham, one-time pants-stealer but artist at heart; Darcy Jenner, boarding school reject whose passion for pranks doesn’t fit with her good-girl image; Alison Laurel (Mouse), Caro’s childhood best friend with a passion for music and thrift store magic; and a few other misfits. They commandeer an abandoned railroad station on the outskirts of town and turn Split River Station into more of a home than most of them have. They are, so the cover of book one tells me, “Hanging out and holding on . . . together.”

This series has many of the things that I love about YA fiction combined with many of the things that I love about ’90s movies:

Foxfire gorgeousness!1. A hideout! Number one wish from middle and high school?: that I could have had an amazing abandoned railroad station hideout with my friends! (Well, maybe, like, number two wish.) Split River Station is awesome, and throughout the series all the characters run away to it, hook up in it, and break down in it.

The Breakfast Club2. A rag-tag bunch of misfits! My favorite thing about the series is that the characters are all so different that none of them would be very likely to be friends in high school—you know, The Breakfast Club vibe. “Looking around the cafeteria, [Caro] saw that the rest of the school was neatly divided into groups” (40-41). When they’re together at Split River Station, though, none of what is expected of them by social group matters. So Josh can just do his art, Darcy doesn’t have to be nice, Mouse isn’t a freak, Caro is more than her looks, and TJ . . . well, TJ is a freaking mensch and I’m sure he would be whatever social group he was in.

3. Small town life! Many of the best ’90s books and movies are about kids chafing against their small towns. And it seems to me that it’s mostly in small towns that the high school stereotypes are the strongest, since there isn’t much mixing or variety, so it makes sense that they are the settings for much angst. It’s the same in this small town in Pennsylvania. Everyone knows each other so it’s hard to get past reputations, and new kids stick out forever. In a way, actually, the first book in the series, Nowhere High, reminded me a bit of a 1989 (mid-Atlantic) version of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, one of my favorite books of all time.No, really! I mean, obviously, it’s not anywhere near as good as The Outsiders, but there is a sense of desperation in the characters, and that shade of hard-edged girls and by-turns distant and violent guys that seems familiar from Hinton’s world. Especially Holly Vickers (such a good name!), the twin sister of one of the school bad boys—she smokes, chews gum loudly, fights, bullies people into dating her, and uses enough hairspray to fell a llama.

Nowhere High Jesse Maguire4. Early ’90s fashion! So, I’m going to do a whole post sometime soon about my favorite descriptions of fashion from YA lit (send me your nominations!) and Mouse in Nowhere High definitely ranks. Caro wears “a tank top, a big khaki shirt to go over it, and a pair of jeans. . . . She clipped on some earrings, pushed a couple of bracelets on, and pulled on a pair of boots” (62). Khaki shirt! Clip-on earrings! Mouse shops for the school dance at a thrift shop and she is clearly a master:

“Alison had unearthed a peasant blouse, heavy with old lace on the neck and sleeves, and an ancient cocktail dress with a stiff strapless bodice and a sequined skirt. Curious, Josh watched as she carefully folded the ugly bodice down and held the blouse up over the skirt. Then she took an old fringed shawl in green, gold, and brown, and with a quick twitch of her fingers, flung it about the skirt at a rakish angle—and suddenly there was a striking outfit” (143).

Supernatural Sam Dean Castiel5. Good, old-fashioned, interpersonal drama! Friends, I never thought I’d say it, sprung full-grown from the bookheads of Anne Rice and J.R.R Tolkien that I am, but I am a little para-super-extra-ed out. I’m sick of prefixes in general, as a matter of fact, and so returning to this mundane saga of pretty basic teenage problems was something of a palate cleanser. People have fights, feel inadequate, want to make art, get pregnant, fall in love, hope, eat, and not a whole heck of a lot else. It’s like I’ve been so supernaturaled-out that when I was rereading the series I kept thinking, like, oh, now TJ and Josh are going to turn out to be creatures and—no, wait, and ah, I bet Caro’s eucalyptus hair is really a Medusa—oh, yeah, not this time. And I didn’t miss it at all.

So, what are your all-time, top-five, desert-island ’90s reads? Inquiring minds want to know.

Lesbian Discovery Novels & Romantic Female Friendships: From Hey, Dollface to My So-Called Life

Concerning, In Particular, Hey, Dollface by Deborah Hautzig & Annie On My Mind by Nancy Garden

Hey, Dollface (1978), Knopf & Annie On My Mind (1982), Farrar, Straus & Giroux

By REBECCA, August 17, 2012

Hey, Dollface Deborah Hautzig Annie On My Mind Nancy Garden

A while back, when I was reviewing Siobhan Vivian’s lovely Same Difference, which is about the power of female friendships, I mentioned in the a response to a comment from Past the Ink, that maybe I should do a post about 1970s and 1980s lesbian discovery novels (that is, books where a character realizes she’s a lesbian)—and here it is, in the form of some musings.

Happy Endings Are All Alike Sandra Scoppettone

What’s up, phallic knife

So, what’s special about lesbian discovery novels of the late ’70s and early ’80s in particular, you may be thinking? For one thing, since there were so few of them published (I think the only others before Annie On My Mind are Sandra Scoppettone’s Happy Endings Are All Alike (1978) and Rosa Guy’s Ruby (1976)) that they have a particular mood in common. I chose to focus on Hey, Dollface and Annie On My Mind because they are, in some ways, so similar. But also because I feel like Annie On My Mind is often cited as the first Ruby Rosa Guylesbian YA novel, when Hey, Dollface totally predates it by four years. Besides, I like Hey, Dollface much more, and it holds a special place in my heart because I first read it when I was 12 or so because I borrowed it from my best friend, J—. Incidentally, when I took out my copy of the book today to write this, I started paging through it and realized that it’s totally J—’s. Her name is stamped in the front cover with one of those personalized stamps in two-tone ink (sorry, J—!). Whoopsies.

Shatter Me Tehereh MafiSo, first things first, I am obsessed with the (1989) cover of Hey, Dollface. I loathe the new YA trend of featuring skinny white girls in fancy dress for no apparent reason on the covers of books. For one thing, I don’t like to have a picture in my head of what a character looks like before I start reading. For another, I don’t like that they’re all prettier than average. Finally, I think it’s boring. There are so many parts of a book that would make awesome covers—I don’t get why anyone would want to look at a model instead of an actual artistically designed cover. But I digress. The point is, even though Hey, Dollface‘s cover features girls who are supposed to be the main characters, I think it’s gorgeous. Maybe because it’s a painting (or a painting-ified photo?) instead of a photograph? Maybe because the girls are just floating white faces being swallowed by black hair, black clothes, and splashed with lipstick and blush? I don’t know; I just know that I love it.

In both Hey, Dollface and Annie On My Mind, two New York City high school girls meet and strike up close friendships because they understand each other where no one else does, and go on to discover that what they feel for one another is more than friendship, then decide what these romantic feelings for another girl mean for them in the long run. My favorite thing about Hey, ruby slippers vintage New York thrift shopsDollface (and the reason that I listed it as a readalike for Siobhan Vivian’s Same Difference) is that Val and Chloe are intensely drawn together because of a shared attitude (they think their snobby, rich prep schoolmates are boring and lame) and tastes (they make papier mâché death masks, use Polaroids, and haunt thrift stores). Val’s tastes are nascent—she knows what she doesn’t like, but Chloe shows her a vision of New York that realizes she loves. Oh, and because this is 1978, they’re in Greenwich Village in a totally sincere way:

“I’d never heard of thrift shops till I met Chloe. She taught me the whereabouts and price-haggling of wonderful dark places filled with furs, strange velvet dresses, hats, old jackets, tailcoats and feather boas. And millions of mismatched pajamas. We walked around all day, going into every pokey shop that caught our eye, finding twisted little streets we never knew existed and eating everything we felt like buying.

Chloe liked things I’d never considered before. She adored old pointy-toed spike-heeled shoes if they had a tacky ribbon or rhinestones adorning them. And those pointy glasses women used to wear. She’d pick up what I thought was an outrageous item and gasp, ‘Oh, I have to have this.’ I usually succeeded in talking her out of it; she told me she’d regret it. She said in a year they’d be the latest chic and I’d regret it too” (34-5).

My So-Called Life Angela Rayanne So, when I refer to this subgenre as “lesbian discovery novels,” I mean more than just that the characters discover that they’re lesbians; I mean that they feature friendships that allow one to discover something about oneself. And that is what really interests me about revisiting these two books 30 years after they were published. Late ’70s and ’80s lesbian discovery novels portray certain strong female friendships as vehicles that allow one or both of the characters to discover that they like girls in part because there were so few other books, films, or pop cultural representations of lesbianism. Nowadays, with many more representations of queerness in the cultural ether, queer YA fiction doesn’t have quite the same oh-my-goodness-what-could-these-feelings-possibly-be anymore and, as a result, we have begun to have some really interesting discussions about romantic female friendships, which might include sexual attraction, but also needn’t. Here’s Autostraddle’s “20 Best Young Adult Novels For Queer Girls,” in response to NPR’s lesbian-lacking “Top 100 List of Best Teen Novels, recommended by my dear friend, J—.

Foxfire Angelina JolieI (of course) don’t mean to conflate lesbianism with some kind of cutesy sleepovers and whispers  teen phase. Rather, I think that one of the most interesting things about the lesbian discovery novels like Hey, Dollface is that they do manage to push a queer panic button about intense female friendships (especially in the characters’ parents) who wonder things along the lines of Hey, Dollface‘s tagline: “Just how far do the bounds of friendship go?” This is nothing new, of course, echoing a long-held societal nervousness about female friendships that appear fulfilling enough that perhaps men aren’t needed.

Friendship in general, and female friendship in particular, is possibly the most central social element of YA fiction. So, looking at the trajectory of the shifts in how intimate female relationships are portrayed over 30-some years is illuminating. For those of us who grew up with strong, celebratory friendships, whether romantic or not, I think there is a real joy in seeing how important female friendships can be to discovering what we like, who we are, and what we believe in. For that reason, I’m glad to see a more celebratory attitude emerging on intense friendships. Here are a few of my favorites, which you should read this weekend while watching FoxfireThelma and Louise, and My So-Called Lifea trio of ’90s gems about important female friendships:

Emma Straub’s “My Rayannes,” for The Paris Review (thanks for the link, Casey!)

Krista Burton’s “A Girl’s Best Friend,” for Rookie

The “Friend Crush” series, for Rookie

So, what about you? Do you have a favorite lesbian discovery novel from back in the day? A book to recommend to queer girls now? Flashbacks to buying Manic Panic every time I say “My So-Called Life”? Let us know in the comments!

Re-Read: The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles

A Review of The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles by Julie Andrews Edwards

HarperCollins, 1974

By REBECCA, August 6, 2012

The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles Julie Andrews Edwards

hook

Ben, Tom, and Lindy Potter meet Professor Savant one Halloween night, and aren’t sure whether they believe him that there is a place called Whangdoodleland, where the last of that kind rules over a kingdom of otherworldly creatures. But, the more they practice the Professor’s methods of using their imagination to get closer and closer to Whangdoodleland, the more convinced they become that they can travel there and meet the Whangdoodle. Once they’re in Whangdoodleland, however, they realize that imagination is a dangerous tool that can be used against them just as easily as they can use it for their own purposes.

why am i re-reading this?

Julie Andrews as Mary PoppinsI’ve been feeling a little lazy and uninspired in my reading lately. Maybe it’s the oppressive heat of this interminable summer; maybe just a little slump brought on by a borderline-shameful bout of attention-span-ruining tv on dvd watching; I dunno. Either way, I decided it was time to go back to my roots and pull one of my childhood favorites off the shelf. I first read The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles as a very young kid (it’s middle grade, I should mention) and had no idea that the author who created this super creative world was none other than the rather stern, besmocked, rosy-lipped Mary Poppins that my sister made us watch repeatedly. What?! Someone who can act, sing, dance, and write? No fair! Inspiring!

I have really strong memories of the world of Whangdoodleland from reading it as a kid. It’s filled with awesome creatures and gorgeous landscapes:

“Their first impression of the forest was that it was dark and gloomy. But as their eyes adjusted to the light, they saw that it was unusually colorful.

The plum-colored trees had brown, gnarled trunks. Most of them were embraced by a vivid pink ivy, growing and twining around the tall columns and twisted limbs. Garlands of the honey-cream flowers hung from the branches, linking one tree to another. The floor was mossy and bedded with ferns the color of amethyst. Huge pearl-white and crimson orchids grew at the side of the road, which pointed straight as an arrow into the dark interior.

Then they saw the eyes. There were thousands of them—large, unblinking, tortoiseshell-yellow orbs staring down through the leaves from every part of the forest” (169).

Julie Andrews Edwards The Last of the Really Great WhangdoodlesBut my favorite thing about The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles was that Professor Savant wasn’t able to get to Whangdoodleland without the Potter kids because the only way to get there is to have a boundless and malleable imagination—an imagination that only children have. So, Savant engages the kids in what is, to them, a great adventure; at the same time, though, he is placing them in great danger because he is dependent on the resource of their imagination. Lindy is seven, Thomas is ten, and Ben is thirteen. By the logic of the book, Lindy has the deftest imagination and is better than her brothers at surrendering to it entirely. Some of the most interesting moments in the book are when Ben, on the cusp of losing his childish ability to view reality as something different, is unable to do what he needs to do to keep himself and his siblings safe. At the start of the book, his maturity makes him responsible and trustworthy; someone Lindy looks up to. But, in Whangdoodleland, he’s something of a liability, and Edwards does a great job of capitalizing on those moments.

did the book hold up?

Mostly. I had forgotten that the mythology of mystical creatures in Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles is that these creatures used to have a lot of power when people believed in them, but

“as the years passed, man became involved in technology and agriculture and industry. Of course, it was natural for him to want to learn about his environment and the laws of nature, about the universe and how to get to the moon, and so on. But as he broadened the new part of his mind, so he closed down a beautiful and fascinating part of the old—the area of fantasy. The more knowledge man gained, the more self-conscious he became about believing in fanciful creatures. People began to think that such things as dragons, goblins and gremlins didn’t exist. The terrible thing is that when man dismissed all the fanciful creatures from his mind, the Whangdoodles disappeared along with them” (34).

The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles Julie Andrews EdwardsThis sets up the stuff about kids’ versus adults’ imaginations and their relative power really well. One of the tropes that I often like in middle grade fantasy is the way that fear gains power the more you believe in it—the nightmare of imagination’s power. Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles has a splash of this for sure, but it wasn’t quite as dark as I remembered. The Prock, a skinny, slinking man who I always thought of as a sinister villain when I read the book as a kid now appeared to me as a totally reasonably watchdog of the magic of Whangdoodleland. He tries to stop the Professor and the Potters from getting to Whangdoodleland and meeting the Whangdoodle because he fears that if they can get there then humans could potentially overrun Whangdoodleland.

The scenes where the Professor trains the Potters to get in touch with their senses and imaginations totally hold up (plus they are constantly eating picnics and scones and stuff, yum!) and I found myself wishing, just as I did when I was a kid, that I could go on grand adventures via my imagination.

The only thing that felt a great deal different on this reading was the quest that the Potters go on to get through Whangdoodleland and meet the Whangdoodle. It didn’t seem quite as tense and suspenseful as I remembered, and the little clues they get along the way didn’t seem quite as clever. Still, though, the meeting with the Whangdoodle was just as delightful as I remembered and the ending just as good.

Check out this awesome art that a 3rd grade class did after reading The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles:

Sidewinders!

Prock!

Swamp Gaboon!

procured from: my home library

So, what about you? Any childhood favorites you’ve been meaning to dust off?

Re-Read: Remember Me by Christopher Pike

Remember Me / Christopher Pike

Pocket Books, 1989

review by Tessa

Characters

Shari Cooper, green eyed ghost

Jimmy Cooper, diabetic sleepwalker brother

Mary Parish, housekeeper for the Coopers and a surrogate mom to Shari

Amanda Parish, quiet and lovely girl who may be leading Jimmy on

Jo Foulton, Shari’s best friend and bestower of annoying nicknames

“Big” Beth, frenemy of Shari and Jo whose birthday party is the site of Shari’s Death. Well-endowed in the chest.

Dan, Shari’s vain, rich boyfriend

Jeff Nichols, not the biggest fan of Shari

Peter Nichols, dead brother of Jeff & spirit guide to the light

The Shadow, scary between-world presence

Garrett, drunk detective

hook

Shari Cooper went to a birthday party and ended up a ghost. Before she can move on, she wants to know how it happened, and who pushed her off of a balcony.

Why are you rereading this?

It seems like most of the people I know were really into Goosebumps growing up. Or at least into the intro to the TV show where the dog barks in rhythm to the theme song (it really is something).  R.L. Stine is a great guy and all, but I have to disagree that he’s the be-all and end-all of adolescent horror books of the ’90s. In my estimation, that title will always go to Christopher Pike, who is so much more of an enigma, anyway, and therefore gains mystery cred.  Pike doesn’t even have a photo on his publisher’s author page, whereas R.L. Stine has a whole website with embedded music.

Pike’s competition was the Fear Street series by Stine (which came before Goosebumps--I was reading my older sister’s books and so never found that younger series as appealing) and had, in my memory, a more epic scope. Stine’s stories were the equivalent of slasher flicks and Pike’s were menacing mystical mysteries, closer in tone to Stephen King and John Saul than Stine could hope for.

At least, that’s what my memory is telling me.

It’s time for me to track them down and re-read them to find out if I’m right.

I started with Remember Me because it’s one of the first Pike books I read. . . and I recently had to withdraw it from my library because the cover is so terrible that no one was picking it up – that’s a professional guess:

Does the book hold up?

I’m pleased to say that it did hold my attention.  Shari’s narrative voice reminded me of Sookie Stackhouse’s comforting way of oversharing her every thought and observation, often digressing into low-level life philosophies. However, while after 10 books Sookie starts to repeat herself and ramble, Shari is younger, bitchier, and more honest–being dead makes one a little more objective about their life–and she’s only got 230 pages to roam around in here.  I remember being absolutely gripped by the fact that a ghost was narrating her own murder mystery. A ghost who says things like

“Beth was sort of a friend of mine, sort of an accidental associate, and the latest in a seemingly endless string of bitches who were trying to steal my boyfriend away.”

Shari has the kind of character tics invented to give a character something to repeat so that you can remember who they are, or to slip in an important plot point in a “subtle” way. It’s not the most accomplished way to build character, but it gave me a nice wave of nostalgic feeling for that era in YA writing. Shari has dark blonde hair that just breaks brushes in two! And she’s green-eyed, but her brother thinks her eyes are brown.

Remember Me takes its time building up the suspense. We know Shari is dead from the first sentence, but she doesn’t actually die until page 56.  Pike takes his time getting Shari out of her house, letting her talk to her brother, her housekeeper/mother figure over cake, talk to the reader about her boyfriend’s “dashing” body and how she loves to think about sex (she makes it sound wholesome and red-cheeked of her, but also shallow), get into the boyfriend’s car, go over to her best friends’ house, talk to her best friend’s mom, get back into the car, and finally get to the fatal party . . . where the guests bitch at each other, open presents–Daniel, Shari’s boyfriend, gives Beth diamond earrings, ahem–hang out, cheat on each other, etc.  Then Jo, the New-Agey best friend, sucker everyone into a game of fortune-telling using the human body as the medium.  Which leads to talking to a presumed-present spirit through Shari’s body, put into a hypnotic trance via a fake funeral.

The fortune telling and the trance still put a prickle through the back of my neck. I hadn’t remembered them being so elaborate, so full of foreboding and soul-searching:

“Jeff was getting awfully heavy awfully fast. ‘But are certain things in our lives dstined?’ he asked.

‘Yes,’ Jo said. ‘It’s very clear this time.’

‘Is the force that we understand as God directly answering these questions?’ Jeff asked.

‘No,’ Jo said, and she seemed disappointed.

‘Is there a God?’ Jeff asked.

‘Yes,’ Jo said.

‘Is he as we imagine him?’ Jeff asked.

‘No,’ Jo said.

‘Is there life after death?’ Jeff asked.”

Once Shari is killed, the mood of the book turns to her exploration of shock, grief, and bewilderment, and her determination to find out what happened.  She eventually confronts questions like Jeff’s in her own way, but the story doesn’t leave its readers wallowing in the implications of the afterlife. We have a murder to attend to, and to solve it we need to slip in and out of dreams, figure out a family history worthy of the daytime soaps, and learn a little about diabetes and colorblindness. That’s all I’ll say in case you don’t want to be spoiled.

Having said that, maybe you can guess where this book falls on the

This book falls squarely in the pink, I’d say. Shari is dead, she has to go into the light, there’s a thing called a Shadow chasing her that pulses with terror, so we have acknowledged paranormal activity. Yet it doesn’t go totally woo-woo. 95% of the book is set on Earth, for example, and deals with real-world people.

Which Pike should I read next?

I’m thinking Chain Letter. I hope that if this were published today it would have a blurb describing it as “off the chain!”

Until next time, Pike Pals!

When the light from the lost land shall return: The Dark is Rising Sequence

As I make my way to ALA Annual, I’d like to talk about one of my favorite series, written by an author who will be awarded for writing it at ALA Anaheim 2012. Susan Cooper, I’d say it’s well-deserved.

by Tessa

The Dark Is Rising: The Complete Sequence
Susan Cooper
Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2010 (omnibus edition)

Includes:
Over Sea, Under Stone, 1965
The Dark Is Rising, 1973
Greenwitch, 1974
The Grey King, 1975
Silver on the Tree, 1977

Characters

Major Goodies:
Simon, Jane & Barnabas Drew – goodhearted & resourceful, but un-magical
Will Stanton – young but Old
Merriman Lyon – little bit Indiana Jones, little bit Gandalf, a lot Merlin
Bran Davies – mysterious albino harp player of the Welsh mountains

Major Baddies:
The Black Rider – evil
Caradog Pritchard – human but twisted by jealousy
Those Whom The Dark Embodies – variously evil, whether in yachts or in caravans

Hook

The Dark is Rising! Well, technically it’s been rising for hundreds of years. But now things are getting serious and the Old Ones need work quickly.  They have to depend on the help of children: three resourceful siblings, the last, youngest member of the Old Ones, and a surprising progeny appearing out of time. Or else the world will be a truly terrible place.

How did you encounter this series?
I was stuck on Narnia for a long, long time and had never heard of Susan Cooper or this series until I was wandering the stacks of the School of Information Science Library in search of something suitable for my booktalking assignment for my Children’s Services course. And there was The Dark is Rising. A book about an epic snow in a small English town, and the discovery of old knowledge and new responsibilities for its protagonist, Will Stanton.  Cozy and cold, mythic and childhood-nostalgic, hopeful and thrilling each have their place in this book. It was the perfect thing to curl up with in a silent, chilly Brutalist university building under the guise of classwork.  I still can’t think of a better book to read on a snowy day.

photo by flickr user enigmatic

It’s four days until Christmas and one day until Will’s birthday. Will is happy in his crowded house with all his brothers and sisters – the only thing he can wish for is more snow, “beautiful, deep, blanketing snow” so it feels like a real holiday.  His sister chops onions to season a meal in the warm kitchen as Will goes to feed the rabbits with his brother.  His family is the kind who walks to the neighboring farms to sing carols and drink hot cider in celebration of Christmas.  They live the kind of poor but idyllic life that sounds so appealing in books – the kind where hard work yields greater appreciation for family and the gifts of nature.

Something’s off, though, and it’s not just the thin, gray snowfall. The rabbits huddle in the corner of their hutch, afraid of the smell of Will’s hands. The radio blasts static when Will walks by. The crows in the grove of horse-chestnuts spring up and wheel around uneasily the sky when he passes. On the road, Will says he sees “a weird-looking man all hunched over, and when he saw me looking he ran off behind a tree. Scuttled, like a beetle.”  When Will mentions it to Mr. Dawson, his neighbor, Dawson just says “The Walker is abroad.”

And so Will, though he doesn’t know it yet, is introduced to the world of old knowledge, situations and phrases that seem plain but are otherworldy. As a reader, I was powerless to resist a book with this combination of rural life and eerie signs.

Plus, it had rad illustrations by Alan Cober:

photo by flickr user Ojimbo

Worldview
Cooper, who won the 2012 Margaret A. Edwards award for this very work, is concerned with how good can defeat evil. The Edwards committee describes it thus: “one of the most influential epic high fantasies in literature, Cooper evokes Celtic and Arthurian mythology and masterly world-building in a high-stakes battle between good and evil.”

Cooper prefers the terms Dark and Light to good and evil, and interestingly, the Light side here is ready to sacrifice things for its cause – it can come off as cold and practical.  That trait speaks to Cooper’s ambition for the scale of her story. It’s epic on  both sides, it encompasses three different kinds of magic as well as at least two different belief systems/mythologies, and the network of dark and light spans the world. But she doesn’t forget that humans are at the heart of the struggle, and her human characters are essential to the battle, as well as human imperfection. As Merriman says: “Every human being who loves another loves imperfection, for there is no perfect being on this earth–nothing is so simple as that.”

There’s so much to cover! Each book is centered around finding an item or items that will allow the Light to overpower the Dark side, and the searches happen to have to involve youth and unsuspecting humans.  Here’s a list of the things that need to be recovered over the course of the books:

  • The Six Signs (wood, bronze, iron, water, fire, and stone)
  • The Grail
  • The Harp of Gold
  • The Crystal Sword

Although most of the stories center in either Cornwall (the seaside), Buckinghamshire (the forest), or Wales (the mountains), the last book takes place in a land out of time and space.  Giving each book a quest in a small location but imbuing it with big implications that stretch out across time ensures that the series has tension and balance. The smaller quests draw the reader into the books, while the larger quest draws the books together into the sequence.  It’s both mysterious and comforting, and I think that great balance in construction and tone is one of the reasons it has remained a fantasy classic.

What are the books’ intentions and are they achieved?
You don’t have to take my word for it, these books are influential and award-winning for a reason. I remembered being initially enthralled on my first read, and was able to read all five in under a month on my second read with the same amount of enthusiasm.

Let me make a list of how these books achieve their greatness:

1. exploration-type adventure

Can we all agree that exploring things is fun? Cooper’s characters get to explore their surroundings, usually in search of something, using clues (as in the first  and third books), or exploring one’s familiar home surroundings with new eyes (as in the second book), or exploring the legendary past with a real life person from it (the fourth and fifth books).

image via World Digital Library

2. historical mysteriousness
King Arthur and his dudebros feature heavily in these books. You don’t have to be an Arthur nerd from way back to enjoy this. You can simply revel in the way the plot doesn’t falter under the weight of the heavy literary baggage that comes with Arthurian legend. Like a fine batter, it incorporates, and even adds some pagan fun (“fun”) into the mix. This is the stuff of tragic folk songs ONLY OLDER.  The books have pedigree, and they treat it with pomp.
3. noble cause
Like many fantasies this book has a world that lives behind our world and behind what we see, but this one is very close to us. The Old Ones live all around us, and they rely on us not ever expecting their magic to be real to keep themselves hidden. The world that Will, Merriman, and the Drews are working to save is very much their world and our world, made out of the darkness and light in everyday life, and so the cause matters all the more.  In one scene, Will encounters a bigoted man and thinks that:

“From the moment when he had heard the man in the car begin to shout, and seen the look in his eyes, he had been no Stanton at all but wholly an Old One, dreadfully and suddenly aware of danger. The mindless ferocity of this man, and all those like him, their real loathing born of nothing more solid than insecurity and fear… it was a channel. Will knew that he had been gazing into the channel down which the powers of the Dark, if they gained their freedom, could ride in an instant to complete control of the earth.”

And then, the Light comes back in an equally quotidian way:

“Tea was laid out on the orange wicker table, glass-topped, that stood outdoors with its matching chairs in high summer. Will’s spirits began to rise. For an Old One with the tastes and appetite of a small boy, it was hard to despair for long over the eternal fallibility of mankind when confronted with home-made bread, farm butter, sardine-and-tomato paste, raspberry jam, scones, and Mrs. Stanton’s delicious, delicate, unmatchable sponge cake.”

the Greenwitch lies under the sea… photo by flickr user greenwich photography

4. real danger
There are snows that threaten an entire village. A man’s life and livelihood ruined by suspicion and jealousy, which makes him go and change the course of the lives around him.  Servants make wrong decisions and exist in a limbo of fear for hundreds of years, and their minds are warped so much they can’t even save themselves when help is offered. A slimy, isolated, covetous totem of the sea haunts the mind of a girl:

“she knew suddenly, out there in the cold dawn, that this silent image somehow held within it more power than she had ever sensed before in any creature or thing. Thunder and storms and earthquakes were there, and all the force of the earth and sea. It was outside Time, boundless, ageless, beyond any line drawn between good and evil. Jane stared at it, horrified, and from its sightless head the Greenwitch stared back. it would not move, or seem to come alive, she knew that. Her horror came not from fear, but from the awareness she suddenly felt form the image of an appalling, endless loneliness.”

5. deep magic
Not only do we have the kind of magic that existed at the Round Table, passed down in an awesome (I say that with full meaning) way through the Book of Grammarye, there is also even older magic. I like to call it space magic in my head, but that’s just me. This is the stuff that can be used for such unearthly things as this accident:

“He could never explain, afterwards, how he came to stumble. He could only have said, very simply, that the mountain shrugged. … The mountain did shrug,… so that a piece of the path beneath Will’s feet jumped perceptibly to one side and back again, like a cat humping its back, and Will saw it with sick horror only in the moment that he lost his balance and went rolling down.”

WALES. by flickr user formalfallacy

6. modern but ancient (and gorgeous) locales
I want to go to everywhere that is in this book.  The hedges, paths, stone walls, sheep cottages, creeks, boulder-strewn mountains, and cliff-buttressed seas are wonderfully described.  Here’s one small moment from Silver on the Tree that exemplifies the natural detail thrown into the descriptions:

“Jane peered closely at hedgerow and field as the car turned out into the lane, and saw Barney gazing too, but there was no sign of anything except white fool’s parsley, and rose-bay willow-herb tall in the grass, and the sweep of the tall green hedges above.”

And here at the beginning of The Grey King:

“The earth smelled clean. Yarrow and ragwort starred the hedgerows white and yellow, with the red berries of the hawthorn thick above them; the sweeping slopes where the valley began to rise were golden-brown with bracken, dry as tinder in this strange Indian-summer sun. Hazy on the horizon all around, the mountains lay like sleeping animals, their muted colours changing with every hour of the day from brown to green to purple and softly back again.”

7. you matter
All this magic and legend wouldn’t mean half so much if it weren’t anchored to humanity. There’s a clear division between the Old Ones and what humans are, and the Old Ones clearly need the humans to win, even if they don’t share the same morality (for lack of a better word).  It’s Will’s family and the sea captain of the house that the Drews rent in Cornwall, and the good sheep farmers in Wales that make the world worth saving. Cooper writes these people in so you know them.

Readalikes

The Snow Spider / Jenny Nimmo / 1986
The first in a trilogy, though I’ve only read this one. It’s set in Wales and involves sheep and magic and is utterly charming. It captured my imagination when I read it as a kid. But there’s a darkness in there, too.

Under the Mountain / Maurice Gee / 1987
More on the sci-fi tip, it’s a story about twins on vacation in Auckland, New Zealand,who discover that there are creatures posing as humans under a mountain. Tense creepfests ensue.

Disclosures & Digressions

1. I’ve never seen the movie they made based on the second book, and I suggest you do the same. And so does Susan Cooper: “You do have to do violence to a book to make it into a screenplay — the two mediums are so different,” Cooper says. “But the alteration is so enormous in this case. It is just different.” from this NPR piece on the books and their transition to a movie.

2. There was less food than I had expected! I always expect a lot of food in fantasy/quest stories so I tried to keep track.  Here’s the pages that I managed to mark, saying the things they ate:

“a stack of fresly-baked scones cut in half, thickly buttered and put together again; a packet of squashed-fly biscuits; three apples; and a great slab of dark-yellowy-orange cake, thick and crumbling with fruit.” (21)
“a dish of gooseberry tart and a small jug of cream.” (50)
“three plates of cold mackerel and salad covered up on the kitchen table, left for their lunch.” (157)
a sandwich: “the bread was soft and new, with plenty of butter, and in the middle there was some delicious kind of potted meat.” (175)
“two fried eggs, thick slices of home-cured bacon, and hot flat Welsh-cakes, like miniature pancakes fleck with currants.” (750)
the afore-quoted “home-made bread, farm butter, sardine-and-tomato paste, raspberry jam, scones, and Mrs. Stanton’s delicious, delicate, unmatchable sponge cake.” (863)

It’s a wonder these children aren’t diabetic with massively high cholesterol.

3. I hereby call for a reissue with the old Alan Cober covers. You can’t improve on them, and they didn’t try very hard (I’m sensing they were going for boy appeal in the redesign and ended up in Clip Art Purgatory). This is worse than replacing Stephen Gammell’s iconic Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark illustrations, because at least they replaced him with another real artist, Brett Helquist (they still shouldn’ta done it, but anyway). Please compare:

More images here:
http://pantechnicon.tumblr.com/post/751330789/the-dark-is-rising

http://www.flickr.com/photos/ojimbo/sets/72157624100084285/with/4679552140/

Finding My Inner Greaser

An Homage to The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

Viking Press, 1967

By REBECCA, May 14, 2012

Ponyboy The Outsiders S.E. Hinton

The Outsiders S.E. Hinton

My much-loved copy of The Outsiders

It’s been 45 years since a teenaged S.E. Hinton (whose publishers encouraged her to go by her initials to avoid alienating her male readers) published The Outsiders, and Hinton has just announced that she will release an e-book version of the novel.

I first read The Outsiders when I was 11, in 1993. I know because “11 years” is written on the inside of the front cover in the careful, round cursive I remember using that year. I originally found it in the library, where I spent two afternoons a week while my mother did aerobics at the Y across the street. I trawled the stacks, running fingertips over the plastic-wrapped spines, then took that day’s findings to the lobby of the Y to meet my mother, reading only the first page of each selection to decide which I would read first.

Stay gold knuckle tattoo

Image: openeyedtattoos

I don’t remember how many pages of The Outsiders I read before I realized that I needed to buy my own copy so that I could read it over and over without the attentive librarian or my parents commenting on how I was checking out the same book multiple times. I do remember scooting into the bookstore next to the grocery store when I next went grocery shopping with my mother, though, and slipping the slim paperback into my pocket before she could see. I was secretive, and stingy with the things that mattered, afraid that sharing would diffuse them. And The Outsiders definitely mattered.

It wasn’t the story, or even the writing style that so captivated me. It was a quality that Hinton’s characters had. Something that I hadn’t experienced much yet—couldn’t have experienced much yet, as a middle class, white kid with a wonderful family, living in a liberal college town—but that screamed at me from the pages.

I wouldn’t have known what to call it then, but it is a very particular kind of honor. An honor that comes from knowing that you will be misjudged but doing what you feel you must do anyway; knowing that your actions alone are not enough to change the world but acting nonetheless; loving whom and what you love despite the threats and harm that result because of that love.

Stay Gold tattoo

Image: flickr user Erin Polito

I wanted to be like them—to fight for the things and people that I loved. But, although I might not have known to call it honor, or been exactly sure of how to describe the gender, race, and class politics that inflect it, I had a sneaking suspicion that something more than my socioeconomic background or my gender stood in the way of my ever being like Dally or Ponyboy. Cherry Valance says it best: “‘It’s not just money [that separates Socs and greasers]. Part of it is, but not all. You greasers have a different set of values. You’re more emotional. We’re sophisticated—cool to the point of not feeling anything’” (35). “‘That’s why we’re separated,’” Pony responds, “‘it’s feeling—you don’t feel anything and we feel too violently’” (36).

If I didn’t even want anyone to know how deeply a novel had affected me, could I ever express the depth of my feelings the way Ponyboy does the first night he meets Cherry?: “‘It ain’t fair!’ I cried passionately. ‘It ain’t fair that we have all the rough breaks!’” (40). I sensed there was a correlation, somehow, between having it rough and being able to express strong emotions. Or was it that without a family that was invested in your happiness it simply became much easier to admit to unhappiness?

So maybe I wasn’t a greaser in that way. But maybe, I thought, the honor I saw in Hinton’s greaser characters wasn’t tied up only in such transparent personal emotionality. Maybe writing could be honorable, too. Maybe it could save people in a different way than Johnny saves the kids from the burning church, or Darry saves Pony and Soda from being put in a boy’s home. And if that was the case, maybe I could express things through my writing that I could never say out loud without feeling terribly awkward and exposed.

Stay gold wrist tattoos

Image: flickr user CharlieOxenFree

In 1993, the idea that I, a kid living in Ann Arbor, Michigan, could ever hope to communicate with the person who wrote my favorite book was totally unthinkable. Sure, I knew people wrote fan letters, but I was never that person. After all, what could I possibly write that would express to S.E. Hinton what her book meant to me? And how could I tell something so personal to a total stranger, even if I thought she might understand? I know now, of course, that writers thrive on just this type of letter, but that kind of hyper-personal fannishness embarrassed me.

When Tessa and I started this blog, one thing that was totally new to me was Twitter. I got the hang of it, slowly, but what repeatedly blew my mind about this chatty new world was the proximity of authors to readers. On a nervous whim, like picking up a phone to call a crush and hesitating over that last digit, I searched to see if Hinton was on Twitter. When I saw that she was, I wasn’t sure what to do. I mean, I wanted to be her as a kid—how could I reconcile that kind of deep respect with 140 characters of potential banality?

Stay Gold ankle tattoos

Image: flickr user Jonny Medina

More to the point, what do I do in this new, close world where expressing what we “like” is just how many of us communicate, to say nothing of sharing what we love? Where, in all this closeness, do I put the pieces of myself that have slouched to the movies with Pony and Johnny and daydreamed through the first feature? The pieces that have tensed in fury on Dally’s behalf and thrown imaginary punches at assholes, bullies, bigots, and anyone who looked at me wrong when I walked down the street? The pieces that always wanted two older brothers—or maybe wished that I could be one? The pieces that so badly wanted a gang of my own that would always have my back?

When I look at my copy of The Outsiders that I first read when I was 11, dog-eared, the edges rounded by re-reading, the idea of experiencing the greasers’ story electronically seems foreign—a little . . . Soc-y, maybe? But maybe not. Maybe the ability to get The Outsiders at the touch of a button, without sneaking into a bookstore or hiding the number of times you’ve checked it out from the local library is the best thing that could happen. In any case, as Ponyboy might remind me, I guess you can read The Outsiders pretty good from an e-reader, too.

Re-read: Girl by Blake Nelson

Girl: A Novel
Blake Nelson
Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 1994

Things that I remembered about Girl before re-reading:
– a feeling of how monumentally great it was
– an image of a drawing of a hallway with red lockers (maybe the illustration from when an excerpt was published in Sassy?)
-shaved heads
-being alone at a show
-finding clothes to wear that made you feel right
-feeling weird about wearing those clothes at school
-an image of standing outside of someone’s house who you really like but aren’t sure of your relationship, and not knowing if they’re in there or if you even want to try to knock on the door

Things that were in the book that I didn’t remember:
-death
-sex
-suicide
-german tourists
-frozen yogurt at Scamp’s and Taco Time
-college applications
-drugs
-working on the high school newspaper
-the importance of wearing one’s hair up
-the sadness of how someone’s grandpa takes all day to walk around the block

Why are you re-reading this novel anyway? What’s it all about?

If you were a teenager in the 90s the YA section of the library (if there was one) was not filled with books about your youth culture.  There were books about youths, sure, and good classic books like The Outsiders.  But nothing about the bands you liked or the scene you wanted to be a part of (I’m assuming you are me in this hypothetical situation).

For that kind of news, you would read Sassy magazine.  Where they sometimes published fiction.  Which is where you learned about Weetzie Bat. And where you first read a story about a girl named Andrea Marr, who was starting her sophomore year at Hillside High School in Portland Oregon.  Her sort of weird loner friend Cybil, who everyone knew as a soccer jock, met a boy downtown named Todd Sparrow, and he impressed her so much she had to do something, so she shaved her head.  Because of Cybil’s hair statement, a boy in school suggests they start a band.  And so Andrea, through Cybil, gains access to a scene.

don't ask me how many times I've watched Empire Records. Enough to only picture Cybil as Deb. photo by Jimmy J. Aquino, click through for live tweeting of that classic film.

Girl follows Andrea up until her graduation and in and out of friendships, through short paragraphs of first-person narration that aren’t exactly journal entries, more like someone talking to themselves in their head.  Andrea loses her virginity, finds the best vintage stores where she buys what her mom calls her “granny clothes”, is sent to work as maintenance crew for a summer camp because of her new interest in said clothes and going to shows at the Outer Limits, starts applying herself to school and getting into college as a way to avoid that fate for another summer, finally meets Todd Sparrow, and sees herself turning into the kind of girl she used to look up to in awe when she was a couple years younger–I mean, she literally sees that look on the faces of people around her:

“Carla turned to me and said ‘I dont’ know if you know this but when Todd goes to Seattle he stays with a girl named Tori and if you want to call her and find out if he’s out of jail, I’ll give you her number.’ I said okay and I took the number and sat back and we all watched Rebecca dance. And all these boys kept coming up to us and it was annoying and Carla wanted to go outside . So me and Cybil went with her and it was a lot better outside because everyone leaned on cars and sat on the curb just like at Outer Limits. And I asked Carla what Tori was like and how old was she and Carla said she was pretty weird and she was twenty-five and she was manic-depressive.  And all the time we were talking guys were staring at us and girls too and I remembered Outer Limits and how Carla was always the coolest girl and whatever people were with her were always the coolest people.” (161)

Andrea was the perfect mixture of naive and cool for a slightly younger teen stuck in the suburbs on which to project her own longings, hopes, and fears. It doesn’t hurt that she’s never really described, looks-wise, so the reader can fully identify herself as Andrea.

new cover...

Does this novel hold up after a reread?

It more than holds up.  As evidenced by my lists above, I retained strong sensory impressions of the feelings Girl left with me but not much else.  It was intense reading it as a teenager but just as enjoyable reading as an adult – I got the rush of remembering my original love of the book and an added layer of looking back at how the characters and their actions come across as an adult.

For example, Andrea’s relationship with Todd Sparrow is obviously exhilarating and new but also sad and emotionally trying–they have great conversations about death, but she also has to ration her time with him through a complex system of symbols in her planner so that she doesn’t ask for too much of him. I could appreciate the intensity of her feelings while also seeing how Nelson slips in details of Todd Sparrow that make me pity him as an adult – he never has money, he’s always making Andrea pay for things, and he’s a 22 year old who is using Andrea as a 16 year old girl-on-the-side. You can see that his life experiences have wounded him so he’s not really emotionally mature or available.

The great thing is that you can tell that Andrea kind of knows this, too, but not in an acknowledged way.  She’s still totally in love and lust with him, and her reservations take the form of trying to figure out how not to look like a groupie and not seem too whiny around Todd–saving face for herself because she knows it’s not a real relationship, but also loving the intense feelings she has with him.  In fact, I’d say the skeeviest dude in the book is not Todd, but Scott Haskell, who takes advantage of Andrea while she’s passed out to use her as real-life jerking off material.

photo by flickr user Dougtone

It’s the voice that Nelson creates for Andrea that makes this novel work and will make it last years down the line.  Unlike many young adult novels using diary-style narration, Andrea doesn’t address the reader and Nelson doesn’t use a device to explain why she’s narrating her experience.  Her voice stands alone, confident and direct. It doesn’t have to explain itself, it just sucks you in.

There’s something about the teenage experience where you worry simultaneously about the big things and the little things, and you feel like you’re just on the cusp of figuring everything out–because finally you have some freedom to make something happen with the emotions that you feel.  Everything is important and receives the same weight of thought, whether it’s if you shop at the same store for all of your clothes, or if some guy breaks your friend’s eardrum at the school lunch table.

Here’s an example of Andrea’s voice, combining all the big and little things in her life in a moment that is both important and forgettable the next day:

“After that we drove around and parked and made out. Then we talked and Mark said how he thought Cybil was okay and how he defended her to his friends when she shaved her head. And he thought the Outer Limits scene was all right in some ways. He was leading up to asking me for sex but I changed the subject to clothes. I complained that my Gap skirt was too boring but he said I looked really cute in it and how I was the cutest girl at the show. And then he told me how sexy I was and how I had a great body. And then let down the seat and got on top of me and we made out more intense than ever. And it was so strange because he was Mark Pierce, senior, with a car, and very cute, who millions of girls liked. And I felt like I should like him more and I tried to but it was hard in the dark when he was just this big weight grinding into you.” (22)

Another great thing about the story is how it captures the microcosm of high school. It does focus on Andrea and her friendship with Cybil, but it also follows the various transformations of several other characters – Greg, Richard, Darcy, Rebecca, Marjorie, and Betsy Warren to name a few, as well as the mysterious outside-of-high-school figures like Todd Sparrow, Carla who is always the coolest girl in the room, Nick from Pax, and Eric the owner of K Club.  Because Andrea narrates the book like she’s talking to herself, it comes off as natural to know about these people–shown passing in and out of Andrea’s awareness.  In this way the world of Girl is unmistakeably the real world and never loses its authenticity.

It’s also not just a story about a romance. Andrea has her one big love, but the focus of the story is really on her and Cybil and the intersection and contrast between their two ways of becoming.  Andrea is narrating, so we see it all from her perspective, but Nelson puts enough in there for us to see the ways that Cybil is lost that Andrea can’t objectively see.

So, if I liked My So-Called Life…
you will definitely like Girl. Andrea is Angela’s gritter West-Coast counterpart.

Where can I read more about the eternally cute Blake Nelson?

Blake Nelson just wrote a sequel to Girl called Dream School (that I have and am excited and scared to read), so there’s been a happymaking amount of coverage of him lately around the blogs. Here’s a few links:

Blake’s blogspot
Interview at Rookie Mag:
“I got a lot of it wrong, I realized as I got older. But one thing I’ve noticed is that people are insecure about sex, so if a female character says: ‘Whenever I kiss a boy, my ears tingle,’ the female reader thinks: ‘Oh no! Why don’t my ears tingle?’ instead of thinking: ‘That doesn’t really happen! This is a guy writing this, not a girl!’ Also, I think in some cases, if you have a good story going, people will go with it.”
Interview at the Hairpin:
“GIRL was originally an adult book. I wrote it basically for Kim Gordon [of Sonic Youth] for some reason. And for my friends who had been through the ’80s punk scene of when I was in high school. The tone of it was originally ‘look how stupid we all were.’ And how adorably confused. But then about halfway through, I realized that the kids of that time (the Sassy ’90s) were going to be the real audience. “
Profile at The Millions
Interview at Teenage Film

This guy knows how to write.

Should I read his other books?

Yes! Especially Destroy All Cars. I’m constantly trying to get people to read that one. It’s a funny book that has boy appeal.

Is there anything else you want to say, Tessa?

Yes, I’m wondering if the model on the cover of the original paperback, credited as Michelle Madonna, is the same Michelle Madonna who is on a reality TV show called Queen Bees. Does anyone know?

Also, Blake Nelson, your poem “Never Change” was up on my wall for a long, long time. Thank you for writing that.

I got this book from:my own personal bookshelf.

The Chocolate War, or why you shouldn’t make high school kids sell candy.

The Chocolate War

Robert Cormier

Pantheon Books, 1974

Characters
Jerry Renault, Our Hero
The Goober (Roland Goubert), Coward with a Heart of Gold
Archie Costello, Assignment Mastermind
Obie, Disgruntled Sidekick With His Own Plans
Emile Janza, Sociopath
Brother Leon, Probably Also a Sociopath
Brother Jacques (the Head), Deus Ex Machina
Brian Cochran, Reluctant Accountant
Carter, Nominal President of The Vigils

Hook
Jerry Renault dares to disturb the universe through an act of double civil disobedience! And pays the price.

Worldview
Nihilist. I think. Or Existentialist?

What was the book’s intention? did it live up to that intention?
There’s no way that The Chocolate War is not a Message Book. I hate to say it, because message books get a bad rap.  But, like any category of book, there are good and bad examples.  And, can I just say that most books have a message somewhere in there.  But what makes a message book a Message Book is that the entire plot is dedicated to delivering a viewpoint on the world. Each cog in the well-oiled plot machine spins just to give life to a philosophical or social problem. The trick is to do this AND get a book that’s not totally didactic with cardboard characters spouting dialogue straight from afterschool specials out of it. Or some God-Narrator who tells you what you’re supposed to be figuring out for yourself.

So, what’s the message in the Chocolate War? I think the best thing about it is that it doesn’t sum up its message in one phrase (a la Jack Black at the end of King King).  In fact, you have to figure it out for yourself. It’s a message book with a personal message for you.  So maybe I should call it an Ethical Dilemma book. But that’s not as catchy.  I see the Chocolate War as an essentially existential dilemma.

Intention Achievement

The intention of the book is to present a real life example of a real-life high school Sisyphus for the reader to mull over.  Here’s a shortish summary (there are many characters, which is why this isn’t shorter): Jerry Renault goes to Trinity High. I’m assuming it’s a Jesuit school because it’s run by Brothers, but it could just be Catholic.  Anyway. Jerry’s a freshman and he’s going out for the football team.  The first chapter of the book kind of sums up Jerry’s character for us.  Let me quote the first line: “They murdered him.” Jerry’s getting his tuchus kicked up and down the field, but he doesn’t quit. Huh. Could that be foreshadowing?

In the second chapter we learn that Trinity High has a not so secret secret society called the Vigils.  Their main thing is making non-Vigils do elaborate pranks.  It’s sort of hazing, I guess, because some of the kids who do the pranks eventually get into the Vigils and go on to force other kids to do pranks.  Archie Costello is the Prankmaster, although he’s not the President of the Vigils, and his second in command is Obie. Obie hates Archie. Archie decides to assign Jerry a task, even though Jerry’s mom has just died. Archie doesn’t give a shit. He’s going to assign Jerry something to do with chocolates.

There’s a big chocolate sale at the school every year as a fundraiser. This year the Head of the school, Brother Jacques, is sick, so Brother Leon is in charge of the chocolates and the school. Brother Leon lives for Trinity, and he has a habit of messing with students mentally to get them to understand that their loyalty to Trinity is super-important. This year he bought double the amount of chocolates and he’s going to sell them for double the price and tell the kids that they have to bring in double the quota.  Even though this is all strictly “voluntary”.  And he asks Archie for the support of the Vigils. In so many words.

So, here comes Jerry. Jerry is assigned to refuse to sell chocolates for ten school days. One would think it’s not a big deal.  But it causes unbelievable tension. It makes Brother Leon apoplectic. It puts pressure on the Vigils because they were supposed to support the sale in the first place. It makes other kids uncomfortable because they’re out there trying to sell the stupid chocolates and Jerry isn’t.

And then Jerry won’t stop refusing to sell chocolates.  He realizes it’s absurd –or, he doesn’t realize anything at first. He just knows he’s doing it.  He has to.

Here’s our dilemma!  And here’s where I really connect with the book. Jerry is restless. Hippies call him a sub-human because he’s living a square life.  He has a poster in his locker that quotes T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (not that Jerry knows this): Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?  He does. Almost just because. Which reminds me of what Camus thinks about Sisyphus:

“Sisyphus is the absurd hero. He is,as much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth…. All Sisyphus’ silent joy is contained [in his rock]. His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing….The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

photo by flickr user cdrummbks

I’m not going to reveal what happens to Jerry. I’m just going to say that it’s his choice. And it’s our choice to imagine if his choice gives him any happiness, idealistic or otherwise. (Or I could read Beyond the Chocolate War and see if there are more answers there).

I’ll just say that I really identify with his stubbornness.  I’ll admit that the events of the book might be a little unrealistic and I found myself questioning their plausibility, but then I would often admit that the okay of authority figures, whether heads of schools or secret societies, often sanctions the most unreasonable behavior.  It can be very hard to talk to parents when you’re an adolescent.  In the end I’d say that it wasn’t too hard to believe in the situation.

Readalikes

I’ve got a classic and and upcoming readalike for this book:

The Wave by Todd Strasser. Same old-fashioned language.  Same treatment of a school-wide phenomenon.  But this time… with Nazis.

The List by Siobhan Vivian.  Multiple viewpoints. Divisive list. Dare I say… a message book?  When it comes out in April you can decide for yourself. You can also check out our interview of Siobhan Vivian here!

Disclosures and Digressions

a. I know Siobhan Vivian and I love her lots. As a person.  And  a writer.
b. We had fundraisers something like the chocolate sale at my middle school, so I can identify with the feeling of being emotionally manipulated into becoming a mini-salesperson — at my school they hired people to come in and do a presentation and show you how many AWESOME prizes you could win at what SALES LEVEL.  And then I’d go home and not sell anything.  On the other hand, I won a prize for most Girl Scout Cookies sold one year.  But that was because my dad did the selling.  This isn’t so much a personal disclosure as a nearly meaningless digression.

c. There’s a sequel to The Chocolate War called Beyond the Chocolate War. Is that where they got Beyond Thunderdome from???

I got my copy from: the library

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