“It has long been my belief that everyone’s library contains an Odd Shelf. On this shelf rests a small, mysterious corpus of volumes completely unrelated to the rest of the library, yet which, upon closer inspection, reveals a good deal about its owner.” ― Anne Fadiman
Robert Cormier looks like your favorite grandfather. But his books are gritty and bleak and remain some of the most challenged young adult books in school libraries. You probably know him for The Chocolate War, but I’m reviewing two of his lesser known books.
After the First Death:
After the First Death shifts between the viewpoints of three characters. Kate, a teenage school bus driver substituting for her uncle. Miro, an orphaned 16-year old trained from his childhood to perform acts of terrorism. And Ben, the young son of a general whose role in the primary action of the book remains vague until the second half.
Two foreign terrorists, one of them Miro, hijack a bus filled with small children on their way to summer camp. They take the bus to a bridge, announce their intentions and demands and begin to negotiate the release of the hostages with local military, assuring that they will kill children if their demands are not met.
As you can imagine, the action alone is enough to make the story interesting—but Cormier’s tight prose paints a story more about the psychology and inner turmoil of each character than what’s happening on the hijacked bus.
The grossness of the urine, sweat, saliva and heat is palpable. I was simultaneously sympathetic and uncomfortable with these characters. The ending passages are shocking, foreboding and heartbreakingly sad (Cormier himself is known to have cried during a reading of this book, quoting, “You don’t know what it cost me to write that.”)
And in case reading about terrorists holding children hostage on a bus doesn’t provide scintillating enough story, I give you Tenderness, another Cormier book about two very messed up people drawn together in an unexpected way.
Eric is an eighteen year old boy just released from juvenile detention for murdering his mother and stepfather (and yes, he was guilty). Now he’s looking for some tenderness—tenderness he finds in caressing and killing beautiful girls. Fifteen-year-old Lori is emotionally naive but sexually precocious; she is also looking for tenderness—tenderness she finds in Eric. She sees his picture on the news and fixates on the idea of kissing him.
Eric is just as chilling and disturbing as you imagine he might be, but as ever, Cormier doesn’t need gore to freak you out. Eric is not an antihero. Sympathy is not so much for the undeserving villain, but for the society that spawned and neutered him.
The ending is satisfying in the typical Cormier way. This book isn’t for the faint of heart, but it is incredibly fascinating.
So, if you’re interested in psychological thrillers combined with the emotional depth and complexity of young adults, Cormier is your man. Happy eye-widening, mouth-opening reading.
(also, sidenote: they apparently made a movie about Tenderness, with Russell Crowe, but I have no idea if it’s any good.)