Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Reading List: A Separate Peace

Welcome to The Reading List, where I review books an English teacher forced you to read.  This is a new series where I review books I read for English class, and tell you my thoughts on them.  Today, we are going to look at the first book I read for Accelerated English 3-4, A Separate Peace by John Knowles.

Spoiler Warning: The following contains spoilers for A Separate Peace.

A Separate Peace is a novel about friendship during the Second World War.  Gene Forrester, our narrator, is a quiet, studious teenage boy going to New Hampshire's Devon School in 1942.  During the summer session, he befriends his roommate, an energetic and incredibly charismatic boy named Finny.  Throughout the summer, Gene and Finny become great friends and form a secret society, the focal point of which is jumping out of a tall tree into a river.

As the summer progresses, Gene begins to suspect that Finny secretly wants to beat him in academics, as Gene is better academically and Finny is better in sports.  Although Finny begins to soothe Gene's paranoia, it still causes Gene, during one tree jump, to shake the branch, causing Finny to crash to the ground below and break his leg.

In my mind, the book can be divided into four parts, each following the seasons.  The above-mentioned plot takes place during summer, the carefree days where boys can and will be boys, and everything is more laid back.  The war is far enough away to be a distant dream, like the heat on a pleasant summer day.  Gene's paranoia, like annoying insects buzzing around a picnic, is the biggest conflict in this part of the novel, an issue at the time, but not very important.

Finny's leg breaking marks the beginning of fall.  As everyone returns to class, something about the chill in the air suggests that things are about to change.  War, like the coming New England winter, is more present, and several of the boys talk about enlisting.  Leper, a kind-hearted, gentle classmate, is the first to enlist and leaves school.  Meanwhile, Finny actively denies the existence of the war, claiming it's all a conspiracy by old men to keep them down.  As fall changes into winter, Finny seeks to train Gene, sheltered by the thought that the war is far away.

Winter, like in real life, can be described as brief celebrations in the middle of frozen hardship.  Finny organizes a winter carnival, complete with games, music, and alcohol.  As the carnival progresses, though, Gene gets a letter from Leper, saying that he "escaped" from the army.  Gene meets him and finds out that Leper has been driven to some form of madness by his stay in the army.  This makes Gene afraid of the army which he and his friends are so close to being drafted to.  Meanwhile, some of the other boys have been investigating what happened to Finny's leg.  During the "trial" they conduct, Finny loses patience and runs out of the hall, breaking his leg again.  A few days later, Finny is dead, as cold as the New England snow.

After winter comes spring.  New life does indeed bloom at Devon, but it is not new life for the numbed students.  Instead, a group of military workers set up shop at Devon.  The novel ends with the boys leaving school and enlisting in the military while Gene reflects on the events that transpired over the past year.

Gene and Finny's relationship is the main focus, and while it is interesting, both characters are very juvenile.  Finny's delusions about the war may have been important at the time, but they come across as incredibly naive to a modern audience all too familiar with the horrors of World War 2.  Finny, however, is the personality of the duo, as Gene's quiet smarts give him a bad case of blank slate.  The other secondary characters are more interesting, but don't get as much text space when they're not actively contributing to the plot.

In the beginning, the story is incredibly light and carefree.  The various machinations of Finny's mind take precedence over really good characterization of Gene, who doesn't get good depth until after Finny's leg breaks, which comes about a third of the way through the book.  Unfortunately, this is the climax of the book, and everything after that matches the "falling action" archetype well.  There are few stakes in this book and the position of the climax so early kills off any stakes it might have had.

I am not a huge fan of A Separate Peace.  Of all the books I've read for English, this one was the most dated, with the purposeful omission of Shakespeare.  While not a bad book and certainly one whose setting we don't see discussed much in literature, it's a rather dull and easy read.  It feels like it wanted to reach for some big message and let that come at the expense of proper pacing and plot construction.  Not a terrible book by any means, but not the best either.

I hope you enjoyed this first installment of The Reading List.  As I finish up my second year in high school, look forward to more and more reviews of books I have to read, and maybe you did too.  Thank you for reading, and I'll see you next time.

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