Robert Cormier




There was a stage in the 70s and 80s in NSW Public Schools that the policy makers setting English texts reacted to years of fairy tale endings and decided kids would better relate to some hard ‘realism’. Thus instead of sugar we were prescribed rat-sack, such as: ‘Kes’, where a borderline neglected child in an ugly poor urban environment finds hope and escape in training a beautiful kestrel (who, of course, is brutally killed); ‘The Outsiders’, where teens barely survive intense gang violence; ‘The Lord of the Flies’, where shipwrecked boys on an idyllic island descend to murderous savagery; and Cormier’s ‘The Chocolate War’, lifting the lid on the mafia nature of high school power groups.


Of course there’s a place for balance. Happy ending conventions still dominate kids’ TV, where bullies are always defeated, crime never pays, and nuclear families live in Stepford suburbs. To introduce some tougher environments, relate to a wider part of the audience, and shake up some ludicrous black and white picture of baddies and goodies seems worthwhile.


However balance is the opposite to Cormier. He epitomises the blind and foolish (and wildly unrealistic) ‘realism’ which assumes the absolute worst of everyone.  If he met Ghandi, he’d suspect this non-violence malarky was a cover for his prostitution racket. If he came across Mother Theresa he’d assume she run off to hide among destitute lepers to avoid her dark murderous past catching up with her.


I remember a time as a child that I was most in Cormier’s myopic mindset. My sister had bought me a record for my birthday, and upon opening it I exclaimed viciously, “You only bought this because YOU wanted to have the record in the house.” Later I realised I was completely wrong. She, of course, was hurt. But at the time I was proud of my incisive understanding of what people were REALLY like. Trapped in my own selfish world, I projected entirely erroneous ugly motives of my own on others. As such I was unable to appreciate much good that was offered to me.


Now of course the world isn’t Disneyland. But neither is it the world of Cormier’s execrable ‘Fade’, where a boy finds he can become invisible, and, wouldn’t you know it, everyone he spies on (who publicly may seem kind or respectable) is revealed to be (at best) some sort of sexual deviant. I can understand his popularity with some younger readers who immaturely puff themselves up, feeling they’ve escaped kiddie books and now are reading about what the world’s really like (and grabbing some seedy voyeurism on the way – perhaps as homework!).


What they mistake for realism is, of course, an ignorant distortion. Sure it’s foolish and naïve to think there’s no abuse taking place in your town; but it’s equally foolish and naïve (and slanderous) to accuse every adult of paedophilia.  Alternatively, not everyone is sincere and kind, but there are quite a few sincere and kind people out there.


It’s such an irony that cynics can look down their nose from the greatest of condescending heights at gullible optimists, while in reality cynicism can blind as much as rose-coloured glasses. To get personal, and relate it back to my childhood story, it can also reflect very badly on the character of the cynic: where do they find some of these appalling accusations except in their own ugly projected motives? In her able Judgement Day, Penelope Lively imagines the goings on house by house in a suburban street. While this inevitably tells us more about her than what actually goes on in such streets, I’m sure she’s got the picture a bit closer to reality. It’s a bit sad that in the same street Cormier’s small, polluted mind could only possibly conjure up abuse and perversion.


April 07

(Read the book way back in ’90 or ’91 as part of my teacher training – apologies that specifics are going to be lacking)