BEYOND THE CHOCOLATE WAR. By Robert Cormier. Knopf. 278 pp. $11.95; THE DARK OF THE TUNNEL. By Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. Atheneum. 207 pp. $11.95; BADGER ON THE BARGE, And Other Stories. By Janni Howker. Greenwillow. 201 pp. $10.25; THE SHADOW CAGE, And Other Tales of the Supernatural. By Philippa Pearce. Crowell. 152 pp. $10.95.
WHEN I WAS little, my embarrassed grandmother had to carry my screaming self out of a theater where she had taken me to see The Wizard of Oz. Scared the wits out of me, and I didn't last long, only until the appearance of the Tin Man. Thirty-five years or so later, I've never seen The Wizard of Oz. And I don't ever intend to see The Wizard of Oz.
What frightened me, I understand now, was the terrible distortion of reality. Children and young people, as they grow, are always seeking the norms of human life and society. But, not knowing where those norms lie, they are in constant danger of confronting the abnormal. That way lies maturity, one hopes, but the confrontations are no less painful for that.
Robert Cormier's 1974 novel, The Chocolate War, examined some very painful teenage problems. Set in a Catholic high school, it dealt uncompromisingly with questions of power and violence, and omitted entirely the Father-Knows-Best mentality of literature for young people. Cormier's latest book, Beyond the Chocolate War, is a sequel to the violent events of the earlier novel.
Archie Costello still runs Trinity's secret society, the Vigils, with a combination of cool cruelty and a deep understanding of human nature. But his henchman, Obie, has grown disillusioned and rapidly changes from Archie's confidant to his avowed enemy, finally seeking a violent revenge for what Archie has done to his life. Along the way, there are threatening letters, sex in cars, fistfights in alleys, girls portrayed merely as sex objects, some pretty strong language, and, at the end, in case anyone missed it, Archie Costello speaks up (and out of character) and announces that he is "all the things you hide inside you."
This is a lively and fast-moving story, if a little cluttered with extraneous characters, but it is lively at the expense of other qualities. It suffers from two serious flaws, one of them major and the other devastating. The major flaw is that everything here takes place in the absence of a convincing context: no parents, no teachers, no classes, no homework, none of the ordinary texture of a student's life. The characters exist in a vacuum. And this failure leads Cormier into the book's worst flaw. The climax of the story, meant to be excruciatingly suspenseful, is first of all, and literally, a trick ending. And secondly, a real school, one with teachers and all the trappings, would never permit students to proceed as Cormier's do. The result is that any teenager likely to read the book won't believe the climax for a second.
Another teenager faces multiple crises in Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's The Dark of the Tunnel. Craig Sheldon is just getting himself back on the right path after his father's death in a mining accident. But while he's in the process of trying to establish a new norm for himself and his younger brother, his mother becomes seriously ill. At the same time, he shares his uncle's involvement in the state's planning for local civil defense in case of nuclear attack. The government's plans for their small town are demonstrably inane, even to his uncle who is directing them, but no one will admit what Craig thinks is obvious.
The third element of the plot is Craig's tentative relationship with a reclusive mountain man known as Cougar. As Craig deals with his other problems, and as he draws a little closer to Cougar, he sees that Cougar has at least taken a stand on something he believes in. It's a good lesson, neatly orchestrated by the author, and Craig begins to see his own actions in a new and brighter light.
Naylor, author of nearly 50 books, has a light touch at making her points. And she is particularly good at creating a convincing setting and context for her characters. True, I can't imagine a high school senior boy carrying a pencil case, and Naylor doesn't know the difference between a compass and a protractor, but this is still an extremely attractive and enjoyable novel.
ALSO EXTREMELY attractive is Badger on the Barge and Other Stories, a first book by English author Janni Howker. In each of the five long stories here, young people (three girls and two boys) find their attitudes rearranged through contact with an elderly person. Howker creates instantly believable characters, both young and old, her settings are richly detailed, and her people speak with a warm Lancashire accent.
In the title story, which is both funny and dramatic, young Helen meets a very colorful old lady who lives on a canal barge which also shelters a badger. Before long, Helen has learned a great deal about the nature of freedom . . . and has also been responsible for a kidnapping. In "Reicker," a boy begins by jeering at an elderly ex-Nazi, lives through a crisis involving a murder and a manhunt, and learns a stunning, and disturbing, truth about life. This story concludes with a last line that is likely to stop readers of any age dead in their tracks with its impact. In "The Topiary Garden," Liz meets an aged woman who tells a mesmerizing tale of her youth, when she passed as a boy and young man in a world that gave no freedom to females. Howker manages to evoke both present and past with equal vividness, and the upbeat ending of the story pleases all the more by its naturalness.
Badger on the Barge is a wonderful book of stories, one that readers are likely to put aside for another reading at one of those times when you need a book you know you can count on. Howker's career as a writer is off to a fine start.
Much less successful is The Shadow Cage And Other Tales of the Supernatural, in which Philippa Pearce presents her young protagonists with some unearthly confrontations. These 10 stories are brief and, for the most part, unaffecting. They have the flaw of wavering uncertainly between humor and horror and, in consequence, don't work as either. What is worse, Pearce gives the impression that she knows little or nothing of the large body of serious supernatural horror fiction; if she does know it, she certainly hasn't made it her own. These are the sort of stories that end with lines like "All this happened a good many years ago now; but runners on the Common still avoid London Hill . . . " or "All the same, I was quite glad when we weren't next-door neighbors anymore." The intended shivers just don't come.
In their search for the normal, young people are most likely to spot the abnormal when it appears in an otherwise credible context. And I think the plain truth is this: kids know when you're having them on. Like them, I can believe in a badger on a barge much more easily than I can believe Pearce's half-hearted ghosts or Cormier's incompletely sketched high school.