Title: A Separate Peace
Author: John Knowles
Challenge status: #67 on Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century, and frequent target of banning attempts (frequently challenged classics) according to the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Book #35 on Summer of Banned Books ’13.
Why: Challenged in New York (1980 – Vernon-Verona-Sherill school district, AGAIN, what’s up VVS?) as a “filthy, trashy sex novel.” Challenged in Pennsylvania (1985, Tennessee (1989), Illinois (1991), and North Carolina (1996) for offensive language/profanity. Also challenged in Illinois (different city, also ’91) for not only profanity, but also “negative attitudes”. (Hmm. Indeed.)
First line: ”I went back to the Devon School not long ago, and found it looking oddly newer than when I was a student there fifteen years before.”
A Separate Peace is a lovely book, written well and subtly for young adults, about two teenagers at a private boarding school (pretty clearly a variant of Exeter) heading into their senior years. The book is compelling not only because it occurs not only at a pivotal time in the boys’ lives (as they are in the transition period between boyhood and adulthood), but also because it’s at such a specific point in time: during World War II.
In many ways this is a “normal” story: two boys who are best friends, but also rivals, negotiating their relationship through social and academic pressures. Part of the tension comes from the fact they care about each other so much – but “love” is not a comfortable expression, but also they’re not quite sure of each other. Ambitions and values are still fluid, not quite solid enough to make their alliance and brotherhood entirely comfortable.
“This was my sarcastic summer. It was only long after that I recognized sarcasm as the protest of people who are weak”. – John Knowles, A Separate Peace
The relationship between Gene (our intellectual and introverted narrator) and his roommate Phineas (the school’s popular and athletic golden boy), would, during “normal” times play out simply in the microcosm of the school environment, but, raging around them and affecting their daily lives is World War II. The boys see classmates just a little older being trained and shipped off to war, while they have another year left to finish their schooling – and make up their minds about what could be the rest of their lives. Enlist, and maybe die in service of their country? Attempt to pursue a different path? Be a hero? Save themselves?
Each character has a different set of decisions to make, and potential consequences to wrestle with. Early on in the book, too, Gene makes a decision – call it an impulse – the ripple effects of which change his life forever. Kind of a hyperbolic example of how decisions we make rarely, or on a daily basis, determine our path through life and affect those around us.
I found the book sad. But I also found it moving, and hopeful, that the author could project a life where so much value could be recovered from so much loss.
“I never killed anybody and I never developed an intense level of hatred for the enemy. Because my war ended before I ever put on a uniform; I was on active duty all my time at school; I killed my enemy there”. – John Knowles, A Separate Peace