November has been a sucky month in a sucky year, and on a recent trip back east for a family situation, I found that the collection of science fiction stories I brought with me for distraction just wasn’t cutting it. Unable to focus, I did the only sane thing and decided to binge-watch seasons 2 and 3 of The Office. After Michael Scott restored the humors in my brain, I raided my sister’s bookcase, where I found a number of books that have been languishing on my TBR list since approximately forever. While The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier and Night by Elie Wiesel are very different works (not least because one is fiction and one is a memoir), both share the distinction of being frequently assigned reading in high school classrooms. Since neither of these books made it into my curriculum as a teenager, I was glad to have the opportunity to rectify this oversight.
The Chocolate War is the type of young adult novel I would have loved as a young adult, a prep-school melodrama in the tradition of A Separate Peace (I know adults and Lisa Simpson love to hate on John Knowles; there’s a reason we read these books as adolescents). The Chocolate War centers on Trinity High School and a group called The Vigils, a secret society of older students who prank and torment teachers and underclassmen alike. The school leadership (particularly Brother Leon, a Catholic Brother and acting headmaster) knows about The Vigils and tacitly supports the group by looking the other way. Archie Costello, a key figure in The Vigils, instructs quiet freshman Jerry Renault to refuse to participate in the school’s all-important fundraiser, the chocolate sale, for a period of 10 days, thereby incurring the wrath of Brother Leon. At the end of the 10 days, Jerry inexplicably decides to continue to refuse to sell the chocolate, in spite of Archie’s command to the contrary. What follows is a power struggle between Archie, Jerry, and Brother Leon, in which Jerry is alternately lauded as a hero of individualism and persecuted as a troublemaker and a pariah. In the end, Jerry regrets that he attempted to “disturb the universe” (inspired by a poster quoting T.S. Eliot) and tells his friend Goober that it’s easier to just conform. “They tell you to do your thing but they don’t mean it. They don’t want you to do your own thing, not unless it happens to be their thing, too.”
Night, a much more somber read, recounts Elie Wiesel’s experiences during the Holocaust from the invasion of Hungary by the Nazis to the deportation of his family first to the ghettos and then to concentration camps. Wiesel and his father were eventually transferred to Auschwitz and then Buchenwald. My own words can’t effectively express the sorrow and horrors that Wiesel describes, yet the most moving and perhaps painful portions are Wiesel’s struggles to care for his father, and to continue to want to care for him. As his father deteriorates in the camps, Wiesel has to make a choice whether to watch out for himself or to reduce his own odds of surviving by protecting his father. At one point, when guards are ordering that anyone who can’t keep up be shot, Wiesel speaks with an old Rabbi who has been separated from his son. Thinking that his son didn’t notice that he had been struggling, the Rabbi searches in vain; Wiesel, meanwhile, doesn’t have the heart to tell him that the son had seen his father trailing but had just run more quickly to save himself. Wiesel remembers, “And, in spite of myself, a prayer rose in my heart, to that God in whom I no longer believed. My God, Lord of the Universe, give me strength never to do what Rabbi Eliahou’s son has done.”
Since I don’t have children, I’m not sure whether these books are still taught in high school. Much has been said about “required reading” turning young people off books, but I would counter that a book like Night needs to be taught. Recent surveys have suggested that knowledge about the Holocaust is diminishing among young people, and a book like Wiesel’s makes the topic personal by sharing a survivor’s own words. As for The Chocolate War, perhaps it’s a bit too quaint for this generation of high school students. Thinking back to my 13-year-old-self, I could relate. But then again, I still like John Knowles.