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About this book

This compelling New Casebook is the first essay collection devoted to the work of groundbreaking American author Robert Cormier. Written by a team of international children's literature experts, the volume offers a variety of critical and theoretical approaches to the range of Cormier's controversial young adult novels.

The newly-commissioned essays explore the author's earlier best-known writings for teenagers as well as his later less critically examined texts, focussing on key issues such as adolescence, identity, bullying and child corruption. Recognizing Cormier's achievement, this long-overdue critical resource is essential reading for anyone with an interest in his influential work and lasting impact on young adult fiction.

Table of Contents


Robert Cormier has been termed ‘the founding father of [young adult] dark realism’,1 ‘the single most important writer in the whole history of young adult literature’,2 and ‘in the top ten writers who are essential reading for an understanding of the development of children’s literature in the twentieth century’.3 Translated into over a dozen languages,4 Cormier’s novels are popular, influential, critically acclaimed, and controversial. Characterised by cinematic style, clear diction, and innovative narrative techniques, his texts feature adolescent protagonists who are pitted mercilessly against corrupt power structures or manipulated by iniquitous individuals. Infused with crime, violence, betrayal, fear, failure, psychological coercion and alienation, his work depicts the loss or corruption of innocence, elicits moral questioning, and features pessimistic or open endings.
Adrienne E. Gavin

1. Fade to Black: Adolescent Invisibility in the Works of Robert Cormier

The underlying theme of much of Cormier’s work is, in the words of Patricia J. Campbell, ‘the eternal question … How can we confront the utterly Implacable and still remain human?’1 Cormier approaches this question from many angles, with each of his adolescent protagonists facing difficult but different instances of the seeming ruthlessness of the adult world. In each case, too, his central teen characters find themselves facing the daunting world alone. They are invisible — emotionally, spiritually, and physically — to those more powerful in the world, yet they need to negotiate that world successfully in order to transform from children into adults. Discussing the theme of adolescent invisibility across a range of Cormier’s work, but paying particular attention to four of Cormier’s novels in which invisibility is central — The Chocolate War (1974), Beyond the Chocolate War (1985), Heroes (1998) and Fade (1988) — this essay explores what happens when adolescent characters respond differently to the ‘Implacable’ situations Cormier constructs for them.
Karyn Huenemann

2. ‘So many disguises’: Questions of Identity in Robert Cormier’s After the First Death and Heroes

Questions of identity are important to Robert Cormier’s young adult protagonists as part of their engagement with the unstable and shifting postmodern world that they must negotiate. Cormier’s teenagers are emergent adults who share a quest, ultimately, to discover, as the doomed Ben Marchand in After the First Death (1979) expresses it, ‘Who I am’.1 It is the way in which identity emerges through crisis, however, that Cormier foregrounds. His teenage characters are not fixed: they are works in progress that shift with the uncertainties of the trials they encounter. Identity becomes more the focus of an ongoing inner dialogue than a defining character statement. Characters like Kate Forrester, the teenage bus-driver and heroine of After the First Death, challenge the notion of identity as something identifiable. Identity shifts. One never knows how one is going to be or act. She acknowledges that ‘there were other Kate Forresters, and she wondered about them sometimes’2 as if identity is more about multiple selves than about a defining personality that determines one’s fate. Kate’s own identity becomes of pivotal importance in the novel at the moment the hijackers enter the school bus and realise that the driver ‘turned out not to be a man’.3
Andrew F. Humphries

3. Fascinated by Evil: Robert Cormier as a Catholic Novelist

It is easy for any reader with even a slight familiarity with Catholicism to recognise the part it plays in much of Robert Cormier’s work. ‘Frenchtown’, a suburb of ‘Monument’, the location of most of his novels, is a thinly veiled version of French Hill in Leominster, Massachusetts, the area where Cormier lived throughout his life. The presence in the suburb of St Jude’s church — ‘big as a cathedral … remote and mysterious’, as it is portrayed in Darcy (1991; published in the US as Other Bells for Us to Ring in 1990)1 — is so central that it could almost be said to brood over life there. His characters habitually (rather than, in many cases, devotionally) go to Mass and confession, and many of them are described as lighting candles and saying prayers, which include such specifically Catholic practices as the rosary and novenas. Crucial roles are played by members of Catholic religious orders. At one level, this background can be seen as enriching the novels by providing the kind of detail that gives three-dimensionality to a work of fiction, an aspect which recalls, for instance, the importance of the town setting in George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871–2).2
Pat Pinsent

4. ‘Nobody out of context’: Representations of Child Corruption in Robert Cormier’s Crime Novels

Robert Cormier made his name as a groundbreaking writer of young adult fiction, particularly in view of his realistic, hardnosed, and unedulcorated portrayal of American society, where gratuitous violence lurks around corners, and evil is found in the most unsuspected of places. Given his thematic concerns with violence and evil, Cormier’s writing frequently focuses on the investigation of delinquent behaviour, and therefore often revisits the conventions of crime fiction. In contemporary literature, one need not look at genre writing for candid portrayals of young people involved in brutal and unlawful activities. In fact, in recent years, there has been a noticeable increase in memorable, mainstream fictional representations of children, both as victims and as perpetrators of violent crimes, possibly inspired by the number of real incidents that have received media visibility. Prizewinning, bestselling novels such as Jonathan Trigell’s Boy A (2004)1 and Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin (2005)2 — loosely inspired, respectively, by the 1993 murder of two-year-old Jamie Bulger by two ten-year-olds in Britain and by the phenomenon of high-school shootings in the United States — are clearly part of an ongoing, revisionist debate about the myth of childhood innocence.
Stefania Ciocia

5. ‘You have to outlast them’: Bullying in The Chocolate War and Beyond the Chocolate War

In Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (1974) and Beyond the Chocolate War (1985), Trinity high school suffers from a bullying climate. The behaviour of Brother Leon, as a teacher and assistant headmaster who later becomes the headmaster, exemplifies workplace bullying, while peer harassment pollutes the student environment. This sequence of two novels describes one full school year and forms a narrative that reveals how Trinity school perpetuates a bully culture. Protagonist Jerry Renault embodies the victim role. Vigils members John Carter, Emile Janza, and Bunting bully peers, while Obie both harasses and gets victimised. Roland Goubert and fellow Trinity students become both onlookers and victims. Archie Costello and Brother Leon enact the worst bullying practices, and intimidation by The Vigils and the headmaster will persist without systemic changes and the removal of Leon as administrator at Trinity.
Amy Cummins

6. Männerbund and Hitler-Jugend: Queer Perceptions of Nazis In and Beyond Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War

In The Chocolate War (1974), Robert Cormier encourages readers to view the events at Trinity high school as analogous to Nazi Germany. He embeds references to the hydrogen bomb,2 concentration camp dogs,3 prisoners4 ‘resigned to execution’,5 survivors,6 and World War II movies.7 The reference to movies calls attention to the highly mediated relationship between the 1960s and the Holocaust, a relationship pressed in this essay to specify why The Chocolate War foregrounds male characters who take pleasure in brutalising others. In a particularly disturbing classroom scene, the acting head teacher Brother Leon humiliates student Gregory Bailey, after which he encourages the class to view its participation in the student’s humiliation as simulating Nazi Germany.8 Hardly a benign lesson, Brother Leon’s perverse classroom ‘game’ inspires the students’ ‘horrible fascination’.9 When Leon’s pointer strikes Bailey, the resulting mark becomes an ‘evil stain’, making Bailey appear as if he ‘had committed an error… and caused his own misfortune’.10 The novel draws many similarities between Trinity and the German Männerbund, which, as Dagmar Herzog analyses, scapegoated European Jewry for all sorts of sexual and moral transgressions.
Holly Blackford

7. Inducing Despair?: A Study of Robert Cormier’s Young Adult Fiction

Since Robert Cormier’s unconventional approach to narrative closure has perhaps attracted more negative criticism than any other aspect of his work, this essay will begin in a somewhat unorthodox fashion with reference to the endings of his three best known young adult novels: The Chocolate War (1974), I Am the Cheese (1977) and After the First Death (1979). The endings of these novels are not just bleak, but respectively involve their young protagonists in utter abjection and self-betrayal (Jerry Renault); either regression to childhood dependency or authorised State termination (Adam Farmer/Paul Delmonte); suicide (Ben Marchand), a violent death at the hands of a terrorist (Kate Forrester), and emotional death (Miro Shantas). All three novels are, in their different ways, anti-Bildungsromans, thwarting their young protagonists’ transition to adulthood. The key questions this essay will investigate are what subject positions these novels offer young adult readers, and how they contain the potential to make them compliant or interrogative readers.
Clare Walsh

8. Framing the Truth: Robert Cormier, His Readers and ‘Reality’

Robert Cormier’s writing has been variously described in ways that reflect extreme contradictions and beliefs about the suitability of his writing for young people. His young adult fiction has been profusely praised by reviewers and won numerous awards. At the same time, it has been criticised and often banned for his inclusion of adolescent issues of apparently gratuitous and senseless vandalism and underage drinking, explicit physical and sexual violence, strong, uncompromising language, and dysfunctional families.
Susan Clancy

9. Interactive Texts and Active Readers: Robert Cormier’s ‘Adolescent Poetics’ in the Light of Wolfgang Iser’s Theory of Aesthetic Response

Two pivotal observations derive from Robert Cormier’s statements above: the first is his retained sense of adolescence and aptitude for understanding young adults; the second is his conscious intention to be ‘provocative’ in writing for teenagers, necessitating ‘intelligent’ readers’ active participation in the reading process he inaugurates with his fictions. Although both observations highlight Cormier’s ‘adolescent poetics’, the latter one represents it most.
Dimitrios Politis
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