Monday, March 3, 2008

John Knowles

A Separate Peace
by John Knowles
Recommended Age: 14+

This is a thin, quickly-read book that has one obvious appeal to Harry Potter fans: it is set in a boarding school. To be exact, a New England boys' prep school, where the sons of the rich and powerful have gone for generations to prepare for college. Only these sons are preparing to go to war, as the novel is set during World War II.

A not-so-obvious reason this should resonate with Harry's fans, is that it exposes the true nature of mankind - the good and the bad - concentrated on the painful, strenuous period known as adolescence. There are no evil wizards or escaped convicts threatening the boys of Devon School, however. The demons they face come from within.

Gene and Phineas are best friends and roommates. Gene is a top student, Phinny is a top athlete. Nevertheless they have a lot of fun together, much of it created by Phinny's instinct for play, his natural leadership, and his all-around charm and goodness. Think Cedric Diggory, only without a broomstick.

But then, something blind and ignorant arises in Gene - something jealous and angry - and he strikes out at Phinny in a most terrible way. Then he has to live with what he has done, which isn't made easy by his guilt, or Phinny's continuing loyalty to him, or the sleuthing of another boy who wants to get to the bottom of what most people called a terrible accident.

I really don't have the heart to tell you any more about the plot. I don't want to spoil it for you. All I can add is that this is a book that will shatter your emotions and challenge your conscience. It is hauntingly beautiful, and achingly sad. And it has a sequel, sort of - Peace Breaks Out, which takes place at Devon School after the end of the War. And that too is a good book, but personally, I think A Separate Peace is the one you will find harder to forget.

Peace Breaks Out
by John Knowles
Recommended Age: 14+

The post-World War II follow-up to A Separate Peace is another tragedy that will leave you nursing an aching heart and facing the evil that can live in the hearts even of the most promising youths. Whether it can be excused by the good mixed with it, is a question that will keep you up at night after you have read this tale.

Pete Hallam is an athletic war hero, fresh returned to his old New Hampshire prep called Devon School, only now to be a teacher. His first challenge is a group of seniors who belong to a generation stunned by the end of the war, frustrated that they did not get a chance to fight in it, and divided by new outlooks that Pete hardly knows how to address. And now, in the uneasy new peace, tempers flare and different personalities collide with a sense of inexorable tragedy.

There are the athletes and leaders - Nick and Tug Blackburn, Parker, and so forth. There are the schemers and manipulators - Wexford and his toadie Perkins and others. And there are the difficult outsiders - fascist youth Hochschwender, and his weird roommate Rob Willis. Take them separately you get interesting and touching portraits of the troubled hearts and searching minds of promising young men. Put them together, and you get an explosion that results in one student dead, and the ones directly responsible hardly aware of how their actions were influenced by one truly frightening young man.

Can you find the sociopath? You may change your mind about who you think it is, before the end. And you will also be torn by grief and pity, fear and disappointment, love and pain.

There is also a little bittersweet romance, and a dreamlike scene in which Tug Blackburn takes an enormous ski jump and, afterward, is temporarily muddled in his mind. Tug's delirium is actually my favorite passage in the book. I'd like to hope you enjoy it too, if you can enjoy having your heart broken. Try it and see.

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