Tomorrow When The War Began Questions

Tomorrow When The War Began

The following are some resources I used with New Zealand high school English students some years ago during a novel study of Tomorrow When The War Began by John Marsden. Posted here in case anyone still finds this useful.

How many wars has New Zealand been involved in during the last 50 years?

  1. The Cold War (1950 to 1953)
  2. Korean War (1949)
  3. Malayan Emergency (1960)
  4. Vietnam War (1965 and 1971)
  5. September 11 Attacks (2001)

Was there any warning before the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre Towers in New York? (September 2001)

Are there any civil defence guidelines for what to do if New Zealand was attacked by another country?

Where is East Timor, who invaded it in 1975, and what was New Zealand’s response to this invasion?

TIME LINE FOR TOMORROW WHEN THE WAR BEGAN

(CUT THE PIECES UP THEN STICK THEM ONTO A PIECE OF PAPER IN THE CORRECT ORDER.)
The narrator says that Robyn told her to write everything down.Ellie decides to go camping up in Hell.
The narrator introduces us to the members of the group.The group drives to Tailor’s Stitch in the Landrover.
The group set up camp in Hell.They find a snake in a sleeping-bag.
Ellie sees waves of jets flying overhead.The group heads back to Ellie’s house in Wirrawee
The group goes to Homer’s and Corrie’s housesThey decide to go into town later that night to see what is happening
Ellie, Corrie and Kevin see people being held in tents at the showgrounds.They get trapped in Mrs Alexander’s back yard.
Ellie blows up three soldiers with a ride-on lawn mower.Robyn and Lee don’t return from town.
The group makes plans to load up the vehicles and head to the shearer’s quarters.A helicopter circles the house, sees Flip and signals a jet to blow up Corrie’s house.
They find Robyn in her own house, although she was meant to wait on the hill.They return to rescue Lee from the restaurant and destroy several vehicles on the way out.
They find Chris (in his pyjamas) after rolling the car into the dam.They carry Lee back to Hell.
Ellie finds the Hermit’s hut.The group reads some documents they found in the Hermit’s hut.
The group decides to do something to slow the enemy down.Fi and Ellie steal a petrol tanker and Ellie drives it to a secure location.
Homer drives the cattle over the bridge using a camera flash to scare the cattle.The tanker blows up the bridge.
We learn that Corrie has been shot.Kevin and Corrie leave the group for good.
Author’s note: John Marsden tells us that the story is based, in part, on real events 

AN EXTREMELY SCAFFOLDED ESSAY WRITING EXERCISE

Describe an important idea dealt with in the text.

Explain why this idea is important.

INTRODUCTION

An important idea in the novel by John Marsden, Tomorrow When the War Began, concerns growing up despite adversity.  All the main characters in the novel change over the course of events in the story, especially Ellie, who starts off as an ordinary rural Australian teenager and ends up a more mature, introspective adult.  Ellie’s growth as a character is important because Marsden hopes she will be an important role model for the novel’s teenage audience.

PARAGRAPH ONE

  • Describe Ellie at the start of the novel
  • Find evidence from the text to show she is an ordinary teenager (a mimetic hero if you want to use Northrop Frye’s terminology)
  • Make reference also to the teenagers’ comments about the Hermit, and how they think he must be terrible because he killed his own family.
  • Finally in this paragraph, explain how this is related to the fact that at this stage of the novel the teenagers see things in black in white.  They don’t see shades of grey, for example how it might be considered right to kill others in some circumstances.  Explain that this part of the book is important because the teenagers seem familiar to the audience, and can identify with them.

PARAGRAPH TWO

  • Compare this to an incident part way through the novel when they are way out of their comfort zones, doing things they never thought they could do. (You choose the incident, perhaps the lawnmower one.)
  • Explain that the setting is important here because if it weren’t an isolated, rural area, help would be readily available and they wouldn’t have the opportunity to show what they are capable of.
  • Explain that one of the reasons Marsden wrote the series was to show that under difficult circumstances, teenagers can shine.  And that this incident demonstrated the teenagers doing exactly that.  This idea is important because it helps the teenage audience feel strong and capable.  Teenagers in this book are capable and valued.

PARAGRAPH THREE

  • Now pick an incident near the end of the book (eg. the bridge incident)
  • Include a quote to show that Ellie is now a much more introspective character.
  • Explain that through the narrator of Ellie comes Marsden’s voice, and he is inviting us to think about things that we may not have thought of before (eg equality between Australia and the invaders), whether it is right to kill in some circumstances and not in others.  By having Ellie as a reflective character, and seeing her change, Marsden is triggering change in the readers, too.

CONCLUSION

The idea of personal development through adversity is linked to other, thought-provoking ideas in Tomorrow When the War Began.  Marsden’s point is that it is not until teenagers go through tough times that we fully understand the shades of gray surrounding some issues.  He hopes that his narrator Ellie will be a model for teenagers reading the book, who reflect on issues carefully, and perhaps become more open-minded for doing so.

ANALYSIS OF AN ‘EXCELLENCE’ ESSAY (NCEA level one)

(This was an example of excellence when NCEA had just started. Standards may have changed in the past 15 years.)

TASK: Describe an important character in the text.  Explain why he/she is important.

Tomorrow When the War Began – John Marsden

An important character in this novel is Ellie. She is important because she shows how human beings can adapt to their circumstances. She was drawn into a war situation and faced adversity. This required her to adapt and mature.

Ellie began life as a rural teenager. She lived on a farm and her life consisted of school, friends and family. She was sheltered: “Our lives had always been so unaffected by the outside world.”  She loved “being a rural” and had little pressure other than to milk cows. Despite this gentle lifestyle I gained an impression early on in the novel that Ellie is an intelligent leader, confident in herself and showing strength of character. This is further shown when Ellie and her friends are thrust into a volatile war. Ellie was forced to kill three soldiers in order to save herself and her two friends: “This is war now and normal rules don’t apply.”

We see Ellie being reflective and realising that she has special qualities. “It was hard for me to believe that I, plain old Ellie; nothing about me, middle of the road in every way; had probably just killed three people.”  She questions her own motives and eventually accepts her situation. The reader sees  her able to make adult decisions.  “I stopped being a normal teenager and began to become someone else.”

Ellie is important because she shows that within us all are qualities that emerge only when circumstances change. Human beings can adapt to almost all situations, showing a courage and an ability to cope with adverse circumstances. Ellie is important because she shows the complexity of human nature and our ability to reflect on our lives.

  1. What exact words did the student use to answer the question in the first paragraph?
  2. What is the reason given for the character’s importance?
  3. What is said about Ellie’s character early in the novel?
  4. What example from the novel backs it up?
  5. What change has the student noticed in Ellie over the course of the novel?
  6. What evidence is given for this change?
  7. How is the essay concluded?

***

TOMORROW WHEN THE WAR BEGAN QUIZ

(The following are simple know-it-or-not type questions and can be used competitively between groups and with a time limit attached.)

  1. What is the narrator’s name?
  2. Who lived in Hell before the group did?
  3. What game did Homer invent in Year 8?
  4. How did the group get to hell?
  5. Who had to stay at home and work on the farm?
  6. What is the name of the town they live in?
  7. What public holiday was the country celebrating?
  8. Who has Thai and Vietnamese parents?
  9. Who does Homer develop a liking for?
  10. What was in the sleeping bag?
  11. What happened when Ellie went to the toilet at night?
  12. What was the first indication that something was wrong at the farm?
  13. What is Homer’s surname?
  14. Whose parents write a note to the kids?
  15. Where was everyone being held?
  16. What is Ellie’s ex-boyfriend’s name?
  17. What had been happening at the show grounds before the kids left?
  18. How does Corrie hurt her leg when they are chased from the showgrounds?
  19. Where did they get trapped?
  20. How did they get away?
  21. Who gets separated from Ellie and the others?
  22. Where do they meet after going into the showgrounds?
  23. What is Homer’s ethnicity?
  24. After coming back from town the first time, where do they initially plan to hide?
  25. Where do they keep a lookout?
  26. Where did Homer and Fi hide?
  27. What do Ellie Corrie and Homer see while on look-out?
  28. What happens to the family photos?
  29. What makes the soldiers in the helicopter suspicious?
  30. What happened to Corrie’s house?
  31. Where do they find Lee and Robyn?
  32. Who did Robyn and Lee meet in the town?
  33. What had happened to Lee?
  34. Where was Lee hidden?
  35. How do they get Lee out?
  36. Where do they get it from?
  37. What kind of car does Homer pick them up in?
  38. What do they eventually do to it?
  39. What happens immediately after this?
  40. How did Lee get back to Hell?
  41. What ritual did Corrie have in Hell?
  42. When listening to the radio, which country do the children hear refusing to help?
  43. Who can butcher the feral animals they catch?
  44. Where do the pairs plan to have their base when they go back into Wirrawee?
  45. What was the title of the half a book they found in the Hermit’s hut?
  46. What was the Hermit’s name?
  47. How did his wife and child die?
  48. What had Chris “souvenired” from town?
  49. How did Homer scare the cattle?
  50. Who drove the petrol tanker?

JOHN MARSDEN: WRITING THE WAR

Part of a Creative Writing series of videos. Possibly hard to get now, except floating around in high school English department resource rooms.

Watch the video and answer the following questions.

THEME

What gets Marsden angry about teenagers?

INFLUENCES

What did Marsden want to show in “Tomorrow”?

SETTING

Why was it important for the book to be set in a rural area?

TARGET AUDIENCE

Who is the target audience?

PLANNING

How does Marsden write?

What had Marsden decided about the plot before he started writing?

What person does Marsden like to write in?

VOICE

When does Marsden know that he has ‘grasped’ the essence of a character?

What does every character have to have?

What does Ellie reflect on?

OTHER CHARACTERS

How does Marsden bring other characters to life?

STATUS

What do characters in any novel have to do?

What is a typical way in which they do this?

What examples are given?

  • Kevin
  • Homer

HARD TIMES

What has to happen for change?

What does the writer need to do to make characters suffer?

HELL

Why did Marsden use the setting of Hell to launch the story?

Why did he call it Hell?

THE HERMIT SUBPLOT

What is the main similarity between the main plot and the hermit subplot?

How does Marsden show the similarity symbolically?

What do the rotting wood and rose symbolise?

BACKGROUND DETAIL

What three things does a writer need to be conscious of all the time they are writing?

FOREGROUND

What is the foreground for?

How does a writer create a good main story?

RELATIONSHIPS

What does a book need apart from action?

REFLECTION

What does reflection mean?

WHO ARE THE INVADERS?

Why is Marsden careful not to identify the invaders?

MARKETING

Why does Marsden like to take more responsibility for the marketing than many authors?

FINALLY

What is Ellie’s comment about story telling?

American Honey Film Review

American Honey film poster

American Honey, directed by Andrea Arnold, is the granddaughter of Thelma and Louise — a road journey with classic mythic structure which follows the coming-of-age (or not) of an 18-year-old named Star. Star comes from a tough background — the classic orphaned underdog, with a mother who has overdosed, and an auntie(?) who requires Star to look after her young kids rather than looking after Star, who definitely needs protection, from the abusive guy she’s got hanging around.

Star has an allegorical name — an ironic name, because this kid will never be a starlet. Refreshingly, she doesn’t even want that. Star explains to Jake that her mother chose it because we’re all made of ‘Death Stars’. Now it’s not ironic. This is an example of Heidegger’s Being-toward-death — Star has already had this character arc. She’s lost her mother to meth. She’s faced death before. By this point in her 18-year-old life she’s learning to live with the fact that we’re all headed for the grave. This explains her hedonism. When Star explains her name to Jake, this is more of a revelation to the audience than to Star herself. Star has not fully come to terms with death — that takes some decades. She mulls it over on several occasions — when she realises the trucker she hitched with has been carrying a load of cattle, and when she accidentally steps in blood (or what looks like blood) in a ditch.

It’s inevitable that a disenfranchised kid like Star will fall into bad company, because most any company is better than what she’s starting out with. Bad company rolls into town as a band of magazine hawking troubadours in the guise of magazine salespeople, with a subculture reminiscent of Lord of the Flies. They’re headed to Kansas — synonymous to most outside Kansas with The Wizard of Oz — another mythical journey starring a girl. Arnold encourages the connection with a cut to a pair of sparkly red shoes which belong to Star’s little cousin. But this is no dreamland. This crew are outlaws with their own set of rules. They punish each other physically for coming last in their sales ranking system. This is headed by a matriarch rather than a patriarch, and reminds me of Alex Garland’s The Beach. The matriarch as villain is an interesting device in a feminist film, and at this cultural moment almost a necessary one, to avoid the hackneyed old ideas of women as one hundred percent victims of the patriarchy, or the dreaded Female Maturity Formula, in which girls have already been through their character arcs, existing only as models for boys to have theirs. We need more female villains. Krystal is wonderfully complex. We get just enough to wonder about her backstory.

American Honey matriarch

Other reviewers have doubted the entire premise of this road trip — who buys magazines anymore? Andrea Arnold lampshades this by having Star ask it up front. What’s never clear is if there are any magazines. If there were, they wouldn’t make money. My interpretation is that there are no magazines. People are paying for a scam. The magazines exist only to justify the begging. Why else do they need to travel so far to get away from each town?

Freshly free of childcare responsibilities, Star’s road trip kicks off. Road trips are hard to write well. They tend to feel splintered — one damn encounter after another. The road trip is by nature a linear plot shape — a masculine plot shape. But when road trips star girls and women, they tend to look a little different. Star’s trip is circular, as they move through areas completely foreign (wealthy and built-up) back to a poor area which reminds Star of her own home. Female journeys are more likely than male journeys to be circular in this way.

We now get to see the childlike side of Star, who isn’t ready for the world of work. She plays the fool, gets high, and doesn’t know a violent man when she sees one. If Jake promises her ‘a present’, she’s putty in his hands. She’s come from nothing, so a present equals love. This movie is basically a love story — or can we call it that? It’s not a love tragedy, either. Like Arnold’s Fish Tank, this is the arc of an emotionally neglected teenage girl falling in with a bad older man, then finally making her escape, or not.

American Honey love story

Arnold makes sure we empathise with Star by giving her numerous Save The Cat moments — twice she rescues an insect. Eventually she uses her sex work cash to buy groceries for neglected kids. Star has a strong moral code, in opposition to Jake’s. She has no time for lying and bullshit. Her reaction alone tells us a lot about her backstory — she’s had nothing but lies and bullshit her entire life. She’s also empathetic because she doesn’t want for much, and we see that as an endearing thing. She meets a trucker and tells him she wants lots of kids and her very own trailer. It never crosses Star’s mind that she could maybe have an actual house. The truck driver himself comes across as extremely empathetic — unlike the truck driver in Thelma and Louise, he’s not turned into the villain — he’s big into boats but despite driving miles for his job, he admits he’s never been to the ocean. He’s not young. We know he maybe never will. This could be Star in three decades’ time — it’s quite possible Star will live her life dreaming. And is dreaming enough? That’s where the symbolism of the magazines come in. If anyone wonders why people would still buy them, the trucker gives us the answer — the magazines are dreams — dreams that even poor people can hold in their hands. The trucker buys two subscriptions, and for him, that will have to satisfy his love for actual boats.

The film employs only a couple of professional actors — the rest are amateurs recruited from carnivals and suchlike. This feels like cinema verite. Each of them looks interesting and distinct. It feels like the actors were left to ad lib. You really feel like you’re in the bus with these young people, for better or for worse. If you’ve ever been on a bus trip, to summer camp, stayed in a hostel, flatted, or partied, you’ll get this.

There’s commentary about rich and poor in America as the bus travels from mega wealthy to poverty stricken areas, where the problems look different. When Star gets to the house of neglected children we’re given closeups of photos pasted without frames to the wall, a near empty fridge, Mountain Dew. This is how we’re shown, tis could be Star’s own house. She’s missing her little cousins and now she’s back in Texas, where she grew up with her meth-addicted mother, she’s come full circle. This is the beginning of her epiphany, though we never get to see what that epiphany is. Maybe she realises this is her entire lot in life, which is why she buys food for these strangers with her sex work money. Or maybe she realises she can use situations like these as a negative example, and start planning to get out of it. The overall message is egalitarian — echoed in the film credits, which list only names, with no distinction between actors and film crew. Krystal explains that poor people will buy magazines because they feel sorry for you, but rich people will buy them because they feel guilty for being rich. Krystal’s take on life may or may not be accurate, but this is how Arnold encourages to view the rich and poor as basically the same, only with different angles on the same societal problem of late stage capitalism.

There’s commentary about homophobia — it’s subtle, but one of the gay characters doubts he can go door to door in redneck country. Subtext reading: he’s not safe here. There’s little commentary on race — this is not Andrea Arnold’s story to write. Our main girl is a woman of colour, but this is a story about white America. It’s clear these white kids identify with Black culture — they have a love for rap and call each other the n-word. It’s left up to us to decide why these kids align themselves with a culture that’s not entirely their own.

The ending is left open for the viewer to extrapolate. Jake gives Star the turtle and she sets the turtle free. Then she joins the turtle in the water. One interpretation: Star is now free like the turtle, having experienced a revelation. Meanwhile, the others dance over a fire to Raury’s tribalistic anthem ‘God’s Whisper’. If that’s not religious imagery of rebirth, I don’t know what is. Then again, Star has given away Jake’s (stolen ring) present before — is this the part where Star finally sees this violent, coercively controlling man for what he is? Maybe. But if she doesn’t see it now, she never will. Take a close look at the lyrics to God’s Whisper, though — you may need to look them up because the song feels morphed and warped in the film — and it’s clear Star has realised who Jake really is:

I won’t compromise
I won’t live a life
On my knees
You think I am nothing
I am nothing
You’ve got something coming
Something coming because I hear God’s whisper
Calling my name
It’s in the wind
I am the savior
(Sing it again!)
Savior
Savior
(I can’t hear you! What?)
Savior (What?)
Savior

The outro music is “I Hate Hate” by Razzy Bailey — an ironically breezy tune with children backing up in the chorus.

That’s why I’m singing now
I hate hate, everybody sing it with me
I hate hate, let’s all get together now
I hate hate, the good Lord above
Don’t you know I love love
Oh, you got to have love

“I Hate Hate” can be interpreted in two ways. The singer either despises ‘hatred’, or they really, really hate something (with the double ‘hate’ serving to emphasise). I interpret this choice of song as Star’s acknowledging to herself that she hates this man, but this experience isn’t going to stop her from living life to the full. It’s okay to acknowledge the bad stuff, and that’s how we move on. Mind you, the irony could have a darker side. She could acknowledge this guy’s terrible and yet choose to stay with him.

For us, Star’s journey ends here. Does she use this newfound hatred to escape? For all we know, this young woman could keep traveling these American highways forever, trapped in a hot bus with a bad man and a stifling, drug-addled rag-tag crew who don’t seem to see abuse when it’s right in front of them. This is the water they swim in, and this is how abuse works. Streetwise matriarch Krystal does see it, but she’s toxic and ignores it. She may even revel in watching it play out, accepting the abuser back when she promised his victim he was gone.

Why do girls fall for these guys? Many outsiders have wondered that about women who stay with bad men. Star’s journey in American Honey affords us a view of destructive attraction from the inside, because Shia Labeouf makes an excellent job of him. He’s been well-written, too. We should now be left with a little insight for how these relationships happen, and empathy for the girls involved.

Although American Honey is comparable to Thelma and Louise, I make the comparison mainly because there are so few road trips starring women. Arnold avoids the problematic, overdone trope which concludes Thelma and Louise — that in order to achieve perfect freedom, a female character must pay the ultimate sacrifice: her life. (In stories about men, it’s more often the male best friend who pays with his life.) I am left hoping for the very best for Star. I think she might be okay now that she’s a little more worldly. More importantly, the real-life audience might be a bit more okay, too. Watch this with your young adult daughters and discuss with your sons.

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

The Chocolate War cover

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier was not written with a young adult audience in mind, but class sets of the book found their way into English departments all over the world. Though this is not my favourite Cormier novel, it remains his best known. Heavy in symbolism and discussable themes, The Chocolate War also makes for a good case study in juxtaposition. The novel begins with a juxtaposition in the title — chocolate is sweet and comforting; war most certainly is not.

There are many resources for teaching and studying this book in a high school literature class. This blog focuses on the storytelling: What writing lessons can we take from this young adult story from 1974, banned and beloved in equal measure?

Content Note

I feel readers deserve a content note about Robert Cormier novels, and about The Chocolate War in particular. This novel has been widely banned, but my reasons for the content note are probably different and girl readers in particular deserve this acknowledged: Cormier writes consistently from the male point of view and objectifies female characters as part of his commentary on how awful boys can be. Cormier never proved he could write well-rounded girls, to be fair. Even when he writes a female character (not in this book) she self objectifies or she is murdered or both. The Chocolate War contains implied rape of girls at the nearby girls’ high school. Archie, a psychopathic character, ‘usually manages to persuade one of them into his car’. He gives them a ride home ‘with detours’. The older I get the more icky I find this. Here’s my exact beef: Robert Cormier and many other writers who imply/describe sexual assault feel the need to include girls — otherwise absent in the story — in order to amplify the awfulness of a particular boy character. This is done for characterisation reasons, yet that’s not how sexual assault works in real life and I expect a bit of mimesis here. Despite his heterosexual orientation, a character as awful as Archie does not need to prey on the girls at a different school entirely. If ever there was a clear psychopath in young adult fiction, Archie is it.

Archie was always puzzled about whatever there was inside of him that enjoyed these performances — toying with kids, leading them on, humiliating them, finally.

Robert Cormier, The Chocolate War

There are plenty of boys he can pick on to assert his sexual dominance, without leaving his own school. My problem here is the extent to which writers are comfortable with the implication of male on female sexual assault, but can’t seem to even fathom male on male sexual assault. Written in the 1970s, going this far may not have even crossed Cormier’s mind, or maybe he self-edited, who knows. Archie carries out his own version of sexual assault on Emile, pretending to take a photo of him after finding him in the toilets masturbating. But it’s never implied that he does to the other boys as he does to the girls. And I don’t think his heterosexuality has anything to do with that. Archie’s 1970s pretend camera would be an actual camera in the 2010s. This kind of timelessness is why some schools continue to study The Chocolate War with modern teenagers, though I think the objectification and assault issue requires a discussion. Though uncomfortable to talk about, the problems with glossing over this aspect of Archie are two-fold:

  1. As a culture we underestimate the rate of male on male sexual assault (important emphasis: rape is about power over others, not about orientation);
  2. We become uncomfortably comfortable with the image of the assaulted female, to the extent where, as a culture, we have now learned to look the other way. To what extent is the male gaze designed to be titillating? Does it matter really if it’s not meant to be, and still is? At no point are readers encouraged to find descriptions of the boy characters titillating, regardless of the reader’s orientation.

These are not the exact reasons The Chocolate War has found infamy as a frequently banned book. This novel has been banned  due to:

  1. Frequency of sexual references
  2. Detail included in the sexual scenes e.g. masturbation
  3. Physical violence
  4. Bribery
  5. Negative portrayal of the institution of school
  6. Catholic schools in particular get a bad rap

But mostly? The issues in this book are so heavy they are difficult to discuss with 30 teenagers, some of whom will have been sexually assaulted themselves, some of whom will sexually assault/have already assaulted. I find it far easier to write about these issues on a blog than to manage a class discussion, and to have that discussion go in the right direction. When schools ban books, that’s sometimes a factor. The Chocolate War is one of those novels which requires the reader to bring their own morality to the table. We’re to look at these boys as an example of treating people badly. But what if some readers do not have morality to bring? What then?

Three Types of Young Adult Novels

Further to the banning, it’s important to note that Cormier did not intend The Chocolate War for a young adult audience. The reading age happens to be twelve, however. That seemed to be Cormier’s natural writing style.

The American Library Association classifies adolescent literature into three categories:

  1. Books Written Specifically for Adolescents
  2. Books Written for General Trade Market Which Have Adolescent Main Characters
  3. General Books of Interest to Young Readers

The Chocolate War belongs to category two and was seen by many as a good text to study in schools.

THEMES IN THE CHOCOLATE WAR

There are many. Here’s a big one:

“Do I dare disturb the universe?”

from T.S. Eliot, in a poem he wrote in his early 20s.

At its heart, this question “Do I dare disturb the universe?” is about power. It serves as an apt metaphor for what adolescents often seek to know about themselves. Jerry Renault takes up this question in Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (1974).

Jerry hangs in his school locker a poster of a man walking alone on a beach that bears the caption “Do I dare disturb the universe?”: “Jerry wasn’t sure of the poster’s meaning. But it had moved him mysteriously.” The Chocolate War explores the question of whether Jerry can disturb the universe—of what will happen to him if he dares assert his personal power. […]

In The Chocolate War Jerry Renault has power in agreeing to exist in harmony with the forces of oppression at Trinity High School, The Vigils and the teachers. He is defeated by novel’s end because he has chosen to break the contract and so be oppressed by the power structure. Foucault would say instead that rather than possessing a certain amount of power to begin with, Jerry actually exists in a chain of power, a chain that involves the selling of education as a commodity and that results in the commodification of the chocolates. Their sale is a means of production for the students. Jerry’s power in the situation is fluid: he both has and does not have power, depending on his relationship to the market forces at specific points in the novel’s time. When he overwhelms the market by providing a model for the other boys’ non-participation in the means of production, the market retaliates by attempting to obliterate him in a “war.”

Foucault even supplies the term “war repression schema” as a synonym for the “domination repression” model of power; he makes much of the notion that “power is war, a war continued by other means”. […]

The Chocolate War is the same sort of dark adolescent fantasy that Lord of the Flies is: when adolescents achieve total control, they become totally corrupt. Both novels are metaphors for the concept that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

[…] Anne Scott Macleod argues that what happens at Trinity is a microcosmic metaphor for American politics. […]

Perry Nodelman interprets the chocolate war as a metaphor for the Vietnam War. […]

Jan Susina interprets The Vigils as the Mafia. […]

Cormier himself has identified big business as the central metaphor of the novel.

At the heart of all these interpretations is the recognition that The Chocolate War is a political novel. It is an investigation of social organisation and how individuals interact with that organisation. The novel communicates that institutions are more powerful than individuals, but that individuals who engage their own power can affect the shape of the institution. Cormier implies that as social organisations, institutions are not to be trusted. […]

When ideologies in YA novels focus specifically on government, they tend to convey to adolescents that they are better served by accepting than by rejecting the social institutions with which they must live. In that sense, the underlying agenda of many young adult novels is to indoctrinate adolescents into a measure of social acceptance.

Robert Seelinger Trites in her book Disturbing The Universe: Power and repression in adolescent literature

But is The Chocolate War any more political than your typical young adult novel?

Few adolescent novels are as direct as Cormier’s are in addressing government as a form of social organization, although almost all adolescent novels are informed by ideologies that are political in nature. That is, all novels are influenced by their authors’ sociopolitical beliefs.

Robert Seelinger Trites in her book Disturbing The Universe: Power and repression in adolescent literature

STORYTELLING TECHNIQUES OF NOTE

Juxtaposition and Irony

The Chocolate War is a story of irony and juxtaposition, which makes the title so apt. Examples from chapter one:

  • ‘A terrible stillness’
  • ‘Suddenly he loved that voice, “Show up tomorrow”.’
  • ‘A strange happiness invaded him.’

And in chapter two we get all the ironies of Archie:

  • ‘Archie the bastard. The bastard that Obie alternately hated and admired.’
  • Archie looks like an All-American Boy but it turns out he’s atheist, which is not very American at all, especially in 1974.
  • ‘That’s what baffled everyone about Archie — his changes of mood, the way he could be a wise bastard one minute and a great guy the next’
  • Although Archie is really mean, he ‘disliked violence’.

Norman Stanton: ‘a blustering bragging character with wild red hair and eyelids matted with yellow crap’

Roland Goubert: The Goober. Juxtaposition: Very tall yet like a child.

Brother Leon: Can control a class but Archie sees vulnerabilities. Assistant Headmaster but in Archie’s eyes he is simply an errand boy for the head. Not worthy of respect. However, like Archie, this man has two juxtaposed sides to him. “In the classroom, Leon was another person altogether. Smirking, sarcastic. His thin, high voice venomous. He could hold your attention like a cobra. Instead of fangs, he used his teacher’s pointer, flicker out here, there, everywhere. He watched the class like a hawk, suspicious, searching out cheaters or daydreamers, probing for shortcomings in the students and then exploiting those shortcomings.’ This man will make a good shadow character for Archie.

Leon is an ambiguous character. In Chapter Six we see him carry out a cruel taunting on a student then tells the class he’s delivered a lesson. He hasn’t delivered a lesson without causing the boy in question grief, so is this similar to doing something really mean and then calling it ‘a joke’? Another juxtaposition.

‘Emile was a brute, which was kind of funny because he didn’t look like a brute. He wasn’t big or overly strong. … Wise guys usually sat in back. Emile didn’t. He chose seats near the front where he’d be in better position to harass the teacher.’

‘Emile, you’re a beautiful person’, says Archie, watching Emile steal fuel from a weaker kid’s car. But Emile never knows if Archie is serious or not — in fact, stealing fuel probably does count as beautiful in Archie’s eyes, because Emile can be useful to him. At the end of Chapter Six, Emile is ‘somehow disappointed’ that the owner of the vehicle hasn’t caught him stealing gas. This is a different kind of irony — an emotion the the audience wouldn’t expect in most people.

The sale of chocolates is such a cozy thing to do — this part of the plot could easily be used in a middle grade novel set in a genuine utopia. But here, the chocolate fundraiser is juxtaposed against the evil of the school.

Goober is the reflection character for Archie. Whereas Archie is delighted at chaos, Goober is utterly bewildered by it, not comfortable at all. We are set to root for Goober because he is such an underdog, but we are equally keen to see what Archie gets up to, because Archie is interesting. Without each other, this book would feel too pathetic or too mean. These boys balance each other out for the reader.

Jerry Renault is the Every Boy — most readers have not lost their mother to cancer, but we can empathise with him because we feel our lives would look like his if we did. Apart from the ghost of a dead mother, nothing much stands out about Jerry. He’s like the Jerry Seinfeld off Seinfeld actually — the characters around him are more individualised.

Among the teachers, too, we have a replica of the classroom, with the Brothers responding in contrasting ways to the same event. Brother Eugene is the grown up Goober — sensitive and emotional and vulnerable. Brother Leon understands Archie the best, though Archie does not have a sociopathic equivalent on staff, which is good for him. The teachers have power by virtue of being teachers, so Brother Leon is still a formidable opponent for Archie.

STORY WORLD OF THE CHOCOLATE WAR

The Chocolate War is an American novel with a USA setting.

Obie describes the school as ‘a lousy little high school like Trinity’. This is a Catholic school. The culture revolves around sport. Football is everything. It is clear from this that we’re talking about a boys’ high school, with its particular brand of hyper-masculinity. Boxing turns out to be other other big sport at Trinity — another dangerous, combative pastime.

The Trinity brothers wanted peace at any price, quiet on the campus, no broken bones.

This is a run-down school — the football field needs seeding and the bleachers need replacing. This needs to be a run-down school because if it were wealthy the need to sell all those chocolates wouldn’t be as dire.

Within this school we have something akin to the mafia:

The Vigils kept things under control. Without The Vigils, Trinity might have been torn apart like other schools had been, by demonstrations, protests, all that crap.

The school is populated with a variety of teachers, some good, some not so good. Brother Eugene: one of the good brothers who teach at Trinity. ‘A peaceful sort’. He exists to contrast with Brother Leon.

The Vigils meet in a small room behind the gym.

Obie works at the grocery store stacking shelves for a part-time job. A friend of the family owns the store, suggesting a cosy, small town where everyone knows everyone.

But this version of American suburbia is an snail under the leaf setting — underneath, things are rotten. Case in point: The Vigils. The gang headed by Archie. These boys run the town. Lead by Archie. President is another bastard called Carter. Obie is secretary and underdog.

For fun there’s the Teen-Age Canteen where the boys have the opportunity to meet girls, referred to as ‘broads’, because these boys objectify female characters as if they’re an entirely different species.

NARRATIVE TECHNIQUE IN THE CHOCOLATE WAR

In a novel, even the unseen narrator can be considered a character. I feel the narrative voice is masculine, perhaps someone who knows these boys really well, a stand-in for a fellow student at the school. He talks about girls as if they are a different species: “The girl was heart-wrenchingly, impossibly beautiful.” (Not the way girls usually describe each other.) However, he is also closely emulating the voice of the characters themselves. ‘Close’ third person.

This close third person narrator reminds us occasionally that he is telling a story. Here, he lampshades some pretty obvious symbolism. Perhaps as he was writing even Cormier thought the cross symbolism felt a little heavy handed:

The shadows of the goalposts definitely resembled a network of crosses, empty crucifixes. That’s enough symbolism for one day, Obie told himself.

Robert Cormier, The Chocolate War

Cormier’s narrator is an all-knowing, misanthropic, pessimistic character who can zoom right into the psychologies of the characters as if he knows them better than they know themselves (he does), and that’s because he sees through their eyes. The narrator is one of them. However, The Chocolate War does not have the immediacy of voice common to most young adult novels. Most are written either in first person right after the events, or occasionally in third person right after the events. Perhaps because this was never meant for the young adult audience, Cormier’s narrator seems much older, as if he’s looking back in time as an unnamed student in this school, but with the psychological insight of a 40 year old man. The advantage of this kind of narrator is that his wisdom can fill in the gaps for an audience who has yet to give much thought to how social groups and dominance works. A teenage narrator would seem preternaturally gifted in psychology to believably write this stuff.

The Chocolate War does not ask the young adult reader to trust in the voice of a single speaker or to accept a single, unchallenged view of events. In alternating chapters we are given thirteen different characters’ perspectives on events. Within some chapters, especially chapters twenty-five and thirty-five, the reader gets multiple points of view. Although Jerry Renault’s views are those most frequently shared, they do not account for even one third of the book. Despite the fact that no adult’s thoughts are represented (we never see into Jerry’s father’s or Brother Leon’s or Brother Jacque’s thoughts, for instance), the book does not limit itself to a single adolescent’s view of the world. The reader develops a sense of a complicated world through the recognition of competing positions and perspectives that are quite different from each other despite their all being “young adult”.

The Chocolate War is not written in first-person address, though the narrator reports throughs from the position of the characters being portrayed. We are told, for instance, that “The Goober was beautiful when he ran”. We understand that Goober himself considers this to be true in contrast with the rest of his life, including the moment under narration in which he attempts a terrifying “assignment”. Here we see what Gerard Genette would call indirect address.

Mike Cadden, The Irony of Narration in the Young Adult Novel

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE CHOCOLATE WAR

QUESTIONS AND REVELATIONS IN THE CHOCOLATE WAR

Cormier is a master of this technique:

If you have too many scenes that just set up questions and knock ’em down, then the story will seem plodding and episodic, and it won’t build a larger narrative. So you have to mix quick payoffs with longer mysteries. Usually the question that ends the scene is a practical one that’s instantly answered by the circumstances of the next. But you should keep your audience looking further ahead, breathlessly wondering how the events they’ve just witnessed will affect the rest of the story.

Matt Bird, The Secrets of Story

Cormier was a master of the question and revelation sequence. He makes readers work just the right amount before handing over the information. I started to make detailed notes on how Cormier was achieving this, but it soon got so complicated I gave up the task. Just know that this book looks simple at first read but is extremely intricately plotted, with set ups and pay-offs, perfect foreshadowing and expert subtleties. If I planned to write a book similar to this I would persevere with my detailed notes.

SHORTCOMING

Our protagonist (in its original, Greek sense — the character who gets the story going) is Jerry Renault. We see him getting beaten up in the first scene, straight into ‘action’, in its most widely used sense.

Hey Coach, you pit on me, Jerry protested. Stop the spitting, coach. What he said aloud was, ‘I’m all right, coach,’ because he was a coward about stuff like that, thinking one thing and saying another, planning one thing and doing another — he had been Peter a thousand times and a thousand cocks had crowed in his lifetime.

Robert Cormier, The Chocolate War

He is not the right body type to be playing football. Too skinny. Ironically, this is his dream.

Chapter two flips to Obie.

Obie was bored. Worse than bored. He was disgusted. He was also tired.

There we have them — Obie’s main psychological shortcomings in the very first line. Cormier is masterful the way he combines unexpected emotions. We can imagine how someone would mistake disgust for boredom, though may not of thought of this before.

The alternating points of view establish that this is not a story about any one character or hero, but about a community. The community itself is the main character, and this community has a dark, seedy underbelly.  Another story like this is Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx. Another is The Lottery by Shirley Jackson.

The boys in this story each has their own shortcoming, except for Archie, who demonstrates better than anyone in YA literature how psychopathy is an evolutionary advantage.

DESIRE

Archie is kingpin and has a very specific goal. It’s Archie’s goal which drives the story, making him the ‘main character’ in a sense. His aim is always to inflict as much psychological pain as possible on those around him.

Certain other boys desire the approval of Archie. Emile is another sociopath, though not quite as smart. I suspect circumstances have deprived him of empathy, whereas Archie seems ‘born evil’.

Goober just wants to be left alone to run.

Jerry doesn’t want anything at first but gets sucked into the drama and wants to passively aggressively claim some status for himself. He doesn’t have to do much to earn that — in fact, he has to do the opposite of something — nothing, so the little rebellions prove too tempting.

So in these characters we see the whole range of desire, from ‘leave me alone’ to ‘I’m going to turn this little community upside down.’

OPPONENT

The coach is Renault’s first opponent, though it remains to be see whether he is an ally. Teachers can swing either way — in fiction as in real life, they can seem mean but actually have students’ best interests at heart. This coach is a stereotypical mean guy. He looks like ‘an old gangster’ and even has a movie-star scar on his cheek. ‘But a helluva coach, they said’. Turns out the meanest looking coach isn’t the most dangerous adult in the school.

Obie’s arch nemesis is Archie. Archie is depicted as an ‘all American boy’, with blonde hair blowing in the wind, sitting in the bleachers. ‘Archie turned and smiled at [Obie] benevolently, like a goddam kind passing out favours.’ Archie is soon set up as the main force of evil — the true, evil villain of the story. Even the title is drawn from him — minions must buy him Hersheys or else get on the wrong side of him.

There’s no true friendship in this novel. When a pecking order is being established it has to be constantly maintained. Everyone is everyone else’s opponent. Though it appears Goober and Jerry could have been friends, they weren’t for the entirety of the novel.

PLAN

Each character has his own plan in an intricate big struggle for top of the hierarchy. The boys are each a different example of one way of going about gaining dominance within an institution. For instance: Jerry — passive aggressively, by refusing to do as asked, then getting a bit addicted to the adrenaline of rebellion and taking it further. Archie — like a sociopath, taking power from others, killing their spirits Goober — Just trying to get along unnoticed, manoeuvring around the power plays of others These characters are mirrored in the characters of the teachers.

BIG STRUGGLE

The minor big struggles of the pranks and the refusal to sell lead up to the big fight — a literal big struggle scene which we suspect may have killed Jerry Renault. (You have to go back to the first sentence of the book to be sure, but it’s metaphorical — his spirit has been killed.) This fight has been set up by Archie to get Jerry back for refusing to start selling the chocolates again. He is pitted against Emile Janza, a strong physical opponent. Students can buy raffle tickets. They write on the tickets who gets to hit who and where. Things get out of hand when Emile loses control of himself.

ANAGNORISIS

Jerry is almost dead when he comes to some kind of understanding:

The knowledge, the knowledge: what he had discovered. Funny, how his mind was clear suddenly, apart from his body, floating above his body, floating above the pain. ‘It’ll be all right, Jerry.’ No, it won’t. He recognized Goober’s voice and it was important to share the discovery with Goober. He had to tell Goober to play ball, to play football, to run, to make the team, to sell the chocolates, to sell whatever they wanted you to sell, to do whatever they wanted you to do. … They tell you to do your thing but they don’t mean it. They don’t want you to do your thing, not unless it happens to be their thing, too. It’s a laugh, Goober, a fake. Don’t disturb the universe, Goober, no matter what the posters say.

The Chocolate War

When writing anagnorises: Make your character come to the absolute brink of (spiritual/actual) death before giving them their epiphany. Otherwise it won’t feel like they earned it.

Seelinger Trites makes use of the word ‘epiphany’ when describing the revelation that takes place in this novel, and points out that the anagnorisis experienced by Jerry in The Chocolate War is completely typical of young adult literature:

[The] intertextual question that lies at the heart of The Chocolate War — “Do I dare disturb the universe?” — is representative of an ethos that informs many adolescent novels. The chief characteristic that distinguishes adolescent literature form children’s literature is the issue of how social power is deployed during the course of the narrative. In books that younger children read…much of the action focuses on one child who learns to feel more secure in the confines of her or his immediate environment, usually represented by family and home.

Children’s literature often affirms the child’s sense of Self and her or his personal power. But in the adolescent novel, protagonists must learn about the social forces that have made them what they are. They learn to negotiate the levels of power that exist in the myriad social institutions within which they must function, including family; school; the church; government; social constructions of sexuality, gender, race, class; and cultural mores surrounding death. […]

In The Chocolate War, for example, Jerry Renault must negotiate his place within a family, in terms of a religion, and in his school.. Jerry’s epiphany is a recognition that social institutions are bigger and more powerful than individuals. The lesson he learns is a primary one in Young Adult literature.

Robert Seelinger Trites in her book Disturbing The Universe: Power and repression in adolescent literature

YA literature reassures readers that the world is your oyster if only you can find the power within yourself to rise above it or up into it.

SYMBOL WEB

To help lead a character (and readers) towards a anagnorisis, authors often make use of a symbol which they return to again and again. In YA novels, it’s quite often photos. But it can just as easily be something else. In The Chocolate War, it’s “The Love Song of Alfred Prucock“. Jerry sees a poster with Do I Dare Disturb The Universe? (the inspiration for Seelinger Trite’s book on YA literature) every time he opens his locker.

This is a classic case of: The reader has the anagnorisis even if the character doesn’t. When the character doesn’t have any revelation, the author has to use recursive tricks like a photo, a line from a poem, a stamp on a hand (in The Changeover by Margaret Mahy) to ram home the message for readers.

NEW SITUATION

I would like to point out that Jerry’s advice to Goober can be read two ways. It can sound like he’s saying, ‘buckle in, do what they tell you.’ But Seelinger Trites believes the message is yes, do disturb the universe:

Jerry’s final words in the novel echo the novel’s opening statement, “They murdered him.” His final lines are unspoken thoughts that he directs to his friend Goober: “Do whatever they wanted you to do…They tell you to do your own thing but they don’t mean it. They don’t want you to do your thing, not unless it happens to be their thing, too…. Don’t disturb the universe, Goober. Although Jerry appears defeated and is even possibly dead by novel’s end, the book still answers the question affirmatively: yes, he can disturb the universe. In fact, he should disturb the universe. Doing so may be painful, but Jerry has affected other people with the choices he has made.

Robert Seelinger Trites in her book Disturbing The Universe: Power and repression in adolescent literature

RELATED

  • The events in this novel ring very true to me. They probably ring true to you, too. Weird things happen in schools. This viral thread about the bread reminds me of the incidents in The Chocolate War, though doesn’t end as darkly.

Illness and Disability in Children’s Literature

The Doctor exhibited 1891 Sir Luke Fildes 1843-1927 Presented by Sir Henry Tate 1894

Illness, disability and disfigurement has a problematic history in children’s literature. What are the main problems, today and in the past, and how might writers aspire to do better?

A BRIEF HISTORY OF CHILDREN’S LITERATURE AND ILLNESS

When you think of classic children’s literature and illness, you’re likely to come up with The Secret Garden.

The Secret Garden […] presents ideas that could certainly be called subversive, since at the time they were new and of dubious reputation. In this case, however, they are ideas about religion, psychology, and health. Colin’s self-hypnotic chanting recalls the sermons of Christian Science or New Thought, in both of which Mrs. Burnett [the author] was interested. The idea that illness is often largely psychological, and can be cured by positive thinking, permeates [The Secret Garden]. Another new concept is that of the healing power of nature, of fresh air and outdoor exercise. Today we take ideas like this for granted, but Mrs. Burnett grew up in an age when the only exercise permitted to middle-class women was going for walks. The Secret Garden also shows the influence of the new paganism that found a following among liberal intellectuals of the time. It contains a kind of nature spirit in Dickon, the farm boy who spends whole days on the moors talking to plants and animals and who is a sort of cross between Kipling’s Mowgli and the many adult incarnations of the rural [man-beast god] Pan who appear in Edwardian fiction.

Alison Lurie, Don’t Tell The Grownups: The subversive power of children’s literature

The Secret Garden is a typical example of literature from the First Golden Age of Children’s Literature, which from 1850 until the first world war.

Now we are in the Third Golden Age of Children’s Literature. Children’s stories have never been so accomplished or diverse. Still, there have been expressions of concern lately about the amount of ill-health in contemporary children’s literature. Ill-health is one of modern children’s literature’s defining features.

Author Philip Womack and his fellow judges read 60 books to come up with the shortlist for the Branford Boase award, which rewards children’s authors at the start of their careers and has honoured names from Meg Rosoff to Mal Peet in the past. According to Womack, at least a third of the submissions this year had a “very similar narrative: there’s an ill child at home, who notices something odd, and is probably imagining it, but not telling the reader. They’re all in the first person, all in the present tense, all of a type,” he said.

[…]

“Children’s adventure it seems has become internal, the setting no longer the outside world but frequently the family, with narrative tension and action arising from issues such as mental health and individual trauma,” [Julie Eccleshare] said.

[…]

For Womack, small-scale dramas, focusing on illness or disability, can be done well – he pointed to titles including Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and RJ Palacio’s Wonder – but “in order to write this kind of narrative you need to be very skilful and I just think the problem is that publishers and authors maybe imagine that if you give a character an illness, they will be sympathetic”.

Domestic Dramas Crowding Out Adventure Stories Warn Children’s Book Prize Judges, The Guardian

It’d be easy to assume, then, that there’s one clean trajectory threading the history of children’s literature, starting at healthy and robust, moving to physically ill, to mentally ill, to so protected and cosseted in cotton wool that it’s impossible to get injured, but inevitable to suffer mentally. Or, the main character is literally dead, narrating from beyond the grave. The Lovely Bones type narratives are the epitome of illness, in a way.

But the history of illness in fiction doesn’t look like that at all.

Helen Scherfbeck, (Finland,1862 - 1946) Recovering Child, 1888
Helen Scherfbeck, (Finland,1862 – 1946) Recovering Child, 1888

Why do we see more illustrations of children in bed, or wrapped up, in earlier ages? I wonder if it’s because our modern culture no longer remembers the concept of convalescence.

Ill-health in storytelling goes back to oral folktales. The Grimm Brothers produced seven different collections of tales. The final (considered definitive) was specifically designed to sell to families with children, and for that volume the Grimm Brothers fleshed out the oral tales they collected, adding their own puritanical Christian and misogynistic morals. But the two eldest Grimm brothers started off as pure collectors, and it was only in 2014 that Jack Zipes published his translations of that first, unadulterated collection of oral fairy tales into English. In the preface, Zipes writes:

The tales of the first edition are often about “wounded” young people, and many of them were told to illustrate ongoing conflicts that continue to exist in our present day. For instance, the tales frequently depict the disputes that young protagonists have with their parents; children brutally treated and abandoned: soldiers in need: young women persecuted; sibling rivalry; exploitation and oppression of young people; dangerous predators; spiteful kings and queens abusing their power; and Death punishing greedy people and rewarding a virtuous boy.

Zipes emphasises that these tales existed for several hundred years before the Grimm Brothers collected them. He’s also keen to remind us that these tales weren’t originally designed for children. They can’t really be considered children’s literature, partly because there was no clear delineation between the concept of adult and child. Zipes makes a link between ‘wounded’ and the ‘underdog’ as archetype:

Throughout the tales of the first edition, there is what I call an ‘underdog’ perspective. That is, there is almost always a clear hostility toward abusive kings, cannibals, witches, giants, and nasty people and animals. There is always a clear sympathy for innocent and simple-minded protagonists, male and female, little people, and helpless but courageous animals. Kings often renege on their promises or abuse and exploit their subjects, including their daughters, and they are either exposed, dethroned, or killed.

Even in modern storytelling, audiences have a strong preference for the underdog. In fact, one of the best ways to get an audience to side with a villain (antihero) is to show him (or rarely, her) in a vulnerable, low-status or put-upon position during the set-up. We see it in Breaking Bad, when Walter is sprung washing cars by his high school students. We see it in The Sopranos, when Tony does procures a CD player for his old mother who treats him like dirt.

This leads into reasons why stories about sick main characters are popular, and why writers might make use of illness to explore various ideas about the human experience. Let’s look at some case studies.

Cancer: The Fault In Our Stars

Despite the tumor-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel’s story is about to be completely rewritten.

Marketing copy for The Fault In Our Stars

The blockbuster contemporary sick-lit YA novel is of course by John Green. Published 2012, The Fault In Our Stars has since been made into a film. Green took a few years between that and his next book, which is not about cancer but about mental ill-health, based on his own experiences with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

When one partner of a love story has a major illness, this is a legitimate and believable way to keep to love opponents apart. This is increasingly more difficult to do as a writer of love stories, because in our more free Western culture it’s fine to get together with the person you love, without a novel-length amount of longing and lust. That alone would be a bad reason to write terminally ill characters. Writing about cancer might be a way for teens with cancer to see a representation of their experiences in fiction — an experience previously ignored, and therefore taboo.

There’s another big reason which may account for the popularity of The Fault In Our Stars. As Nicole Galante argues in her paper “A Genre Against Them: Regulating Young Adults Through Literature“, most YA literature affords young people power… if only they are patient (and don’t die). This is a false kind of power, and probably not all that pleasing to read. This tendency accounts for the fact that most YA stories are ‘future-oriented’.

However, stories in which characters have no guaranteed future cannot be future-oriented. The characters must find a way to grasp hold of their power in the here and now. This makes literature about sickness surprisingly fresh.

Popular as it is with its target audience, The Fault In Our Stars did catch a little heat. Some readers felt Green went beyond ‘depiction and representation’ and slipped into ‘glorification’ territory.

Trust me, I understand that the deification of pain and suffering is a longtime feature of fiction. I bring up The Fault in Our Stars because as much as those characters explicitly and repeatedly speak angrily of people who idealize death, the text itself idealizes death; that book is widely beloved. The idea that suffering distills us down to something pure is an old and lauded trope of Western fiction.

It’s just a super shitty one.

Deborah, Dreamwidth
Mental Illness: Am I Normal Yet?

Green’s Turtles All The Way Down is not the only blockbuster book about OCD. The following year gave us Am I Normal Yet? by Holly Bourne.

All Evie wants is to be normal. She’s almost off her meds and at a new college where no one knows her as the girl-who-went-crazy. She’s even going to parties and making friends. There’s only one thing left to tick off her list… But relationships are messy – especially relationships with teenage guys. They can make any girl feel like they’re going mad. And if Evie can’t even tell her new friends Amber and Lottie the truth about herself, how will she cope when she falls in love?

Marketing copy for Am I Normal Yet?

It’s interesting that the marketing copy says nothing about the main problem in the book — Evie is living with OCD. This is kept as an early reveal. Am I Normal Yet? is a popular YA novel and the first in a series known as The Spinster Club. The narrative is surprisingly didactic at times, launching into Tumblr-like tirades on issues such as the casual flinging about of terms like ‘OCD’ and ‘panic attack’ when the speaker has no idea what these conditions really mean for people living with them. As per the marketing copy, this is mostly a story about a young woman who is delving into dating, a bit later than her peers, due to her early teenage years being filled up with the nothingness and imprisonment of OCD. Like various other stories (The Sopranos, Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You, Big Little Lies), sessions with the therapist provide further insight into the main character’s head, even though it’s written in first person. Such self-examination in someone so young would otherwise seem unrealistic.

Plot-wise, Evie’s OCD depicts an exaggerated response to the normal (but healthy) anxiety shared by all young people as they enter the dating world. Strangely, I was reminded of Diary of a Wimpy Kid when reading this. Greg Heffley is younger of course, and prepubertal. (My favourite word. Go on, say it aloud.) Greg is disgusted by adult bodies, which comes to the fore (in sometimes sexist and fatphobic ways) as he visits the local pool, for instance. In this young adult novel Evie is older in years, but still having trouble reconciling the admixture of emotions around finding sex and romance appealing, yet repulsive. Evie’s OCD shines a light on something common to many — the unaroused state of looking in at romance and thinking it’s totally gross and crazy, versus the state of arousal and attraction, in which all of those feelings (normally, ideally) go straight out the window. In short, the main character’s OCD examines a common disconnect around romantic love and the dirtiness of sex.

Memory Loss: The Secret History Of Us

There is a subcategory of young adult novels which star young women who have lost their memory. The memory loss might be due to an accident, or there might be science fiction/paranormal/crime elements. She gradually recovers her memory over the course of the story. This is a subcategory of the amnesia story — a narrative device which allows reader and main character to discover the setting together, creating extra empathy for the main character.

I’m searching for the chosen one/long-lost princess/heroine, who disappeared as a baby. I’m definitely not going to check orphanages for pretty teenage girls who have suspiciously specific amnesia.

@Brooding YA Hero
EXAMPLES

In 2008 we got The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson. Set in near-future America, seventeen year old Jenna awakes from a coma after a terrible accident. Memories slowly return as she watches movies of her life. It reads as a teen medical drama.

In 2011 we got The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodgkin. Mara wakes up in a hospital with no memories of how she got there. She can’t remember the accident that killed her friends. She has PTSD and her family is concerned for her mental health. (Unlike many paranormal young adult stories, Mara has a family who cares about her.)

In 2014 we got Don’t Look Back by Jennifer L. Armentrout, about a young woman whose best friend has gone missing. Sam herself wakes up with no memories. The facts of Cassie’s disappearance are buried deep inside Sam’s memory.

2017 gave us The Secret Memory Of Us, whose plot looks very much like a newer version of The Adoration of Jenna Fox.

Olivia wakes up to realize she doesn’t remember. Not just the accident—but anything from the last four years. Not high school. Not Matt, the guy who is apparently her boyfriend. Not the reason she and Jules are no longer friends. Nothing. That’s when it hits her—the accident may not have taken her life, but it took something just as vital: her memory. The harder she tires to remember things, the foggier everything gets, and figuring out who she is feels impossible when everyone keeps telling her who she was. But then there’s Walker. The guy who saved her. The one who broke her ribs pumping life back into her lungs. The hardened boy who keeps his distance despite Olivia’s attempts to thank him. With her feelings growing for Walker, tensions rising with Matt, and secrets she can’t help but feel are being kept from her, Olivia must find her place in a life she doesn’t even remember living.

Marketing copy of The Secret History Of Us by Jessi Kirby

The ur-story of the ‘female led love story with memory loss’ is Sleeping Beauty. When the young woman remembers nothing of her past, authors have a lot of storytelling techniques at their disposal:

  • The female main character can undergo a sexual awakening, even if she’s had one before. We tend to romanticise our first sexual experiences, replaying them over and over in our minds. In The Secret Memory Of Us, Olivia gets to experience her first kiss with a boyfriend she has had for a while, and therefore safe with. In the story, she’s literally redoing her first kiss. To the young reader, this feels cosy and safe.
  • The female main character is at a permanent disadvantage. The boys around her — namely, her love interests, her brothers, everyone — knows more than she does. This allows the writer (and readers) to indulge in the helpless girl fantasy, in which adolescent girls are saved by more mature, competent boys. This is a common and enduring fantasy. The wide appeal of the Twilight books stand as evidence of that.
  • But if the female main character is passive through no fault of her own — e.g. a car accident — the author can also depict her as a ‘strong character’ with plenty of agency. Unlike Bella Swan, Olivia can’t be described as passive. The main character of a memory loss story can be really quite proactive in reclaiming her memories, piecing clues together with the singular focus of a detective. In other words, the memory loss plot allows an author to create a young woman who is both helpless and proactive at the same time.

SICKNESS AND GENDER

Writing at Bitch Media, Alana Kumbler noticed a commonality in YA stories about sickness:

A girl is forced to face the reality of her illness, engages in recovery through her ambivalent relationships with other sick teens, and ultimately figures out how to “come out” to the “normal” kids and gain acceptance even though she’s marked as different.

Kumbler also noticed some problems. One is to do with the cover art:

They [girls depicted on the covers] are unmarked by their illnesses, so there’s no physical difference to bar identification between healthy reader and ill character. The covers, then render illness invisible while simultaneously reinforcing our cultural imagination of tragically beautiful illness as the province of vulnerable white female bodies.

Another problem is to do with the accidental enforcement of the rules of femininity:

Illness novels (like other YA novels for girls) emphasize the importance of protocols of femininity, which must be followed regardless of whether one is sick or well. In McDaniel’s Six Months to Live(1985), for example, the central characters do each other’s makeup while in the hospital.

Another problem is in line with the point Barbara Ehrenreich made in her book about relentless and unhelpful positivity, Smile Or Die:

[The sick teenage girl is] urged to fight cancer through “imaging” techniques

Separately, the patriarchal nature of the medical system generally goes unchallenged and unexamined.

Kumbler lists some character tropes common to illness YA:

  • main characters defined by fashion choices, extracurricular activities, hair type, and parental occupation
  •  the cute and charming terminally ill child
  • the amputee/cancer survivor potential boyfriend
  • the strong, attentive older brother
  • the “normal” guy at school who serves as crush object but is often a jerk
  • the father who can’t accept his daughter’s illness
  • hospital staff with accents or personality quirks (an Irish brogue, a tendency toward clumsiness, extreme perkiness)

And describes a common plot:

  • Typically, mysterious symptoms lead to diagnosis
  • Which leads to denial and angst
  • Which ultimately leads to either acceptance and cure or acceptance and death.
  • Illness is more common than disability, and when there is disability, it’s usually the result of an earlier illness. This is because there’s a lot more potential for drama in a new diagnosis.
  • The girl commonly keeps her illness hidden, but is punished when the secret comes out.

SICKNESS ON TV

It’s not just young adult literature which has been including characters with mental illness as part (or main character) in the cast. This is a trend also seen on television.

TV, and comedy especially, has really delved into mental illness recently. What do you think makes that such a prescient topic right now?

It’s funny because it definitely does feel like that’s a thing that’s happening on TV and that we are a part of it. But it was never our intention to really delve into exploring mental illness or different versions of depression or anything like that.

I think we’re just seeing more and more are shows that are allowed to take their characters seriously. I think that’s something BoJack is and I think the fact that you’re seeing more and more shows that are serialised goes hand in hand with that. In the past, a character had a funny quirk, but you couldn’t really delve into that because you had to make every episode make sense on its own. You couldn’t go too dark with it; you had to keep that status quo going for as long as possible.

But now you’re seeing the creators of the show really take those quirks seriously, and the actors can take that seriously and go, ‘Okay, well what does that mean that this character acts this way? Or react to these situations in this manner? Why would his character do that?’ You can keep asking questions and following up on that. These characterisations get richer and deeper and more deeply felt.

If you look at the last 60 years of television, I think you’d actually see a lot of characters that exhibit the symptoms, perhaps, of the kind of thing you see now. The only difference is now you can really unpack that and we’re given the space and the interest to really explore those things and take them seriously — and take the characters seriously.

Junkee
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PROBLEMATIC DISABILITY NARRATIVES

To summarise:

  • It’s possible the balance of sickness and illness is pushing out adventure stories, but is publishing a zero sum game? If there’s a problem, could it be publishers are promoting domestic dramas more than they’re promoting adventure stories? So, a problem with marketing? Or is it readers themselves who are leading the charge here?
  • In representing serious illness such as cancer, and combining them with love stories, lightening the tone, are authors accidentally glorifying those very illnesses they’re hoping to realistically depict?
  • In a memory loss love story, does the proactivity of the female character in regaining her memory and solving the mystery really compensate for her inherent passivity? Related: If a young reader enjoys ‘female passivity’ fantasies, is that going to cross over into her real life, causing problems in relationships?
  • In medical dramas which give a lot of information about the illnesses and symptoms, the descriptions can border on the grotesque, turning the story into a gross-out experience. An injection can almost seem titillating.
  • By focusing heavily on a character’s illness, the author is setting the character up as separate from the reader. There’s a risk the author will end up making the reader feel like a caring person with a character arc which starts off invoking reader repulsion for reader pity.
  • Sick characters can position the character as a source of inspiration for non-sick readers. Perversely, sick characters can be set up as someone to idolize because of their illness. Idolisation doesn’t equal social acceptance or recognition.
  • A new diagnosis allows dramatic potential in loss of social status, beauty and romantic potential, as if it’s impossible to be ill as well as have social status, beauty and romantic potential.
  • In stories where a girl is punished for ever having kept her illness hidden, this is a clear message that it’s wrong to keep your own medical details to yourself. (This actually reminds me of some problems with the current #MeToo movement, in which authors writing about any sort of identity must come out publicly in order to be accepted as a legitimate voice.)
  • Teen illness stories are rarely narrated by the sick girl herself. First person narration via healthy best friend or sister has traditionally been a common viewpoint. In Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, the story is narrated by a boy who lives nearby. The Fault In Our Stars may have marked an abrupt shift  in how illnesses are depicted in young adult fiction. Green’s book is narrated by Hazel herself, which avoids all sorts of problems (mentioned above). Namely, if the girl dies at the end (or even if she doesn’t) the person who undergoes the character arc is the bystander, not the girl herself. Like the titular Million Dollar Baby, the sick/disabled girl is the sacrificial lamb for the (more important) bystander.
Disability And Disfigurement As Moral Problems

Disfigurement is a separate issue from disability, but worth a mention.

Disability and disfigurement aren’t the same thing, though of course a person can have both. Disability is about what a person can or can’t do (or the fact that society says they can’t, or doesn’t set them accessible paths); disfigurement is about how a person’s body appears.

But disfigurement, specifically, is alive and well in children’s literature — often used oppressively by the narrative. It’s often a symbol of evil, or a punishment, or something negative, or something meaningful on moral levels, as something for a character to “overcome.” It’s almost never simply a way that bodies can be. But in real life — like disability, like fatness, like other embodied aspects that literature uses oppressively — disfigurement is simply a way that bodies can be. We need to call out oppressive use of disfigurement in children’s literature. Notice when it’s a symbol. Notice what it’s a symbol of. Notice when it’s a punishment. Talk about it.

Dicey Tillerman

“If you give handicaps & scars to your characters only as a way of marking them as evil, outcasts, tough and manly, or to make them feel exotic/mysterious (aka, to other-ize them), think about what that says to your real-life readers, and then think outside the stereotype box.”

Naomi Hughes on Twitter
See Also

‘Curious affection’ or ‘monstrous affliction’? Revisiting Patricia Piccinini from Overland

TO STRIVE FOR AS WRITERS

  • When characters are sick, they need to be the ‘main characters’ of their own stories. Whatever the narrative technique chosen, they should be the ones undergoing the character arc. The safest way to achieve this is to narrate the story via the sick character, not from her sister/boyfriend/neighbourhood boy.
  • Descriptions of the medical treatments need to be a careful balance between realistic/informative and grotesque. Ideally, we need #OwnVoices narratives.
  • We all know someone with illness. We’ll all lose health at some point. The stories overall should challenge the positioning of able and healthy bodies as normalcy.
  • When the sick characters are female, authors have a great opportunity to challenge more general standards of femininity rather than to support them. (The Patriarchy Is Killing Us, But Literally)
  • Related to this, there’s plenty of opportunity for critique of the current medical establishment and its various problems, including refusing to take young women seriously when they report problems with their bodies.
  • There’s also plenty of opportunity for political commentary of user-pays health systems, and how that alone can wreck families. Or how having an illness without a name is harder to deal with. Or how having an invisible illness is a different experience from having an obvious one.
  • The stories should leave teen readers with a more nuanced and complex understanding of illness, including the surrounding politics.
  • Artists, musicians and writers have got love covered, but few have managed to write what it feels like to be in pain. Especially chronic pain.

Anyone who has fought the medical establishment as a teenage girl knows that, as far as most doctors are concerned, teenage girls are not considered honest or accurate reporters of their own unusual symptoms

Deborah, Dreamwidth