Peace Breaks Out, John Knowles (1981)

Peacebreaksout

 

But no men got killed by the enemy, not one, on United States soil…They never got here. Do you realize what that saved the American psyche from? Think how we would have felt if we’d seen Germans parading down Fifth Avenue in New York, locking up President Roosevelt, pasting up orders on buildings telling what time we had to be home, what we couldn’t read, how much we’d be allowed to eat, if anything…What if you’d seen your house blow up, with your mother inside, and your baby sister, and your little dog.

 

This is a sequel to the young adult classic, A Separate Peace published in 1959, although it is a stand-alone book and does not require any knowledge of the first book.

The story takes place at Devon School, a prep school for boys in New Hampshire, just after WWII. The war factors into both books with profound effects on the character and aspirations of the boys. In A Separate Peace military service was inevitable due to the draft and affected how the boys interacted with each other and themselves, as well as their plans for the future. In Peace Breaks Out, the graduating class is the first in many years where the young men can look forward to a ’normal’ future. But they feel cheated that they aren’t going to be able to ‘do their part’ in fighting the bad guys ‘over there,’ so instead, they fight them at school.

The school becomes a microcosm of the fear the larger world feels in the aftermath of the war over Russian domination and Nazi sympathy. A cabal develops among the boys led by the editor of the school newspaper, Wexford, who plot against German apologist Hochschwender with disastrous results.

Pete Hallam, war hero and recent alum, who has come back to Devon school to teach history and physical education sees what is happening and tries to intervene. But suspicions on both sides are impossible to break through. When a stained glass window honoring the students who fought and died in the war is broken, the damage Wexford has done to Hochschwender’s character has dire consequences.

Knowles has a gift for enfolding the reader into the life of the school through seasonal changes which dictate the rhythm and activities of the boys. I found this to be true in the first book as well. Winter especially, when it is brutally cold gives the boys little time for physical activities, but a lot of time for scheming and plotting. And like the boys in this boarding school who are only able to leave with permission, we also are forced to stay and grapple with their fear, anger and suspicion of each other.

While there are some weak plot lines, Knowles has a gift for creating memorable characters and as in the first book, that aspect is strong in the second.

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My Edition:
Title: Peace Breaks Out
Author: John Knowles
Publisher: Bantam
Device: Mass market paperback
Year: 1981
Pages: 178

Challenges: TBR

Reading New England Challenge Wrap-Up

One of the highlights of my 2016 blogging year was participating in the Reading New England Challenge hosted by Lory of Emerald City Book Review. I read 12 books from specified categories, including one from each New England state.

I only started book blogging the previous September and was still getting the lay of book-blogging land when I saw the announcement for the challenge. I thought it would be a good way to read some classics I’d missed along the way.

I could not have chosen a better first challenge. Not only did I finally read Little Women and The House of the Seven Gables, I forced myself to read a horror novel and a book by someone I’d never heard about. I even bought a map of New England to track where the books were set!

One of the benefits of doing a challenge like this is being introduced to writers with whom you are unfamiliar.  If you were to tell me when I started one of my favorite experiences would be reading the aforementioned horror story, I would have called you daft. Or, that The Country of the Pointed Firs, a book by an author I’d never heard of would end up my favorite book of the challenge, I’d have been stunned. But both are true. I will be reading more of H.P. Lovecraft next year (during daylight hours, of course 🙂 ) and I have already read a short story by Sarah Orne Jewett (“A White Heron”) that was beautiful.

Other highlights for me: “Our Town,” Little Women, getting to know Nathaniel Hawthorne through The House of the Seven Gables and The Blithedale Romance, discovering one of my favorite films “The Haunting” was based on a book, The Haunting of Hill House and enjoying it as much as the film, and while I had mixed feelings about A Separate Peace I now know why a close co-worker finds it to be his favorite book.

 

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Thank you, Lory, for all the work you put into this. It was a great experience with lasting effects!

Here is what I read:

January: New Hampshire
A Separate Peace John Knowles

February: Fiction
The Blithedale Romance Nathaniel Hawthorne

March: Maine
The Country of the Pointed Firs Sarah Orne Jewett

April: Poetry and Drama
Our Town Thornton Wilder Thornton Wilder

May: Vermont
The Haunting of Hill House Shirley Jackson

June: Nonfiction
Hawthorne Henry James

July: Massachusetts
Little Women Louisa May Alcott

August: Children’s Books
The Witch of Blackbird Pond Elizabeth George Speare

September: Rhode Island
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward HP Lovecraft

October: Speculative Fiction and Mystery
Looking Backward Edward Bellamy

November: Connecticut
The Three Weissmanns of Westport Cathleen Schine

December: Readalong or free choice
Summer Edith Wharton

Top Ten Tuesday: New-To-Me Authors I Read For The First Time In 2016

toptentuesday

I have never participated in memes hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, but I could not resist today. This year has been such a wonderful discovery year of new books and authors for me. So here is my list:

John Knowles: A Separate Peace.
Long ago I worked with a man who said this was his favorite book in college. Others in our office raised their eyebrows whenever he said this. I wish I had read it then, so I could have given him support.

Patrick Hamilton: The Slaves of Solitude
The characters in this book will haunt me for a long time. In some ways a simple story of emotional survival during WWII, but very powerful.

Sarah Orne Jewett: The Country of Pointed Firs
One of the bonuses of doing a reading challenge is choosing books and authors you keep meaning to read. She is one and this is probably one of the big surprises of this reading year. I loved this book!

Louisa May Alcott: Little Women
Yes, you read that right. In all my years on this planet, I had yet to read this classic. And like so many people who have seen the films, I thought I knew the story. Oh my, no! The book is so rich.

George Eliot: Middlemarch
I read this as a readalong during the summer and made notes on each section we read. I have yet to actually review it…because frankly, I am intimidated. It is stunning in scope of topics and characters. In fact, with each new chapter new people were introduced and I was afraid I would get confused. But I never did. What I remember most about reading this was in the actual reading and a reminder of why I love to read.

Shirley Jackson: The Haunting of Hill House
For Witch Week I read the book of one of my all time favorite films, The Haunting. I am not sure when I realized the film was taken from a book, but participating in Reading New England made me aware. The book is so rich in details that could not possibly be captured on film. I hope to read more Jackson next year.

Edith Wharton: Summer
Even though I was very disappointed that the main character could not find a way out of the limited life choices women were left with in the early 1900s, I still enjoyed this book. Wharton herself had an interesting life that I hope to learn more about next year.

H.G. Wells: The War of the Worlds
Throughout the years I’d heard snippets of Orson Welles radio broadcast, and thought the story was pretty simple. But the book is filled with a philosophy and spirituality that is intriguing. The story is complex, a journey not just of physical survival, but that of civilization and its individuals.

Charlie Lovett: The Bookman’s Tale
I really enjoyed the adventure Lovett took me on, the result of a character’s simple act of buying a rare book!

Joan Didion: The Year of Magical Thinking
The chronicle and minute details of grief Didion experiences after the death of her husband. I couldn’t put it down.

A Separate Peace, John Knowles (1959)

My Edition:separatepeace
Title: A Separate Peace
Author: John Knowles
Publisher: Bantam Books
Year: 1975, text of the original 1959 edition
Pages: 196
Synopsis: Goodreads
 

 Finney never left anything alone, not when it was well enough, not when it was perfect. “Let’s go jump in the river,” he said under his breath as we went out of the sunporch. He forced compliance by leaning against me as we walked along, changing my direction; like a police car squeezing me to the side of the road, he directed me unwillingly toward the gym and the river.[i]

 My Thoughts

This was my first reading of a book many read as teenagers. The novel is told as a flashback when Gene Forrester comes back to his prep school alma mater, the Devon School in New Hampshire 15 years after he graduated. He has come back to make peace with the disastrous events that occurred in his last year of school. As he walks through the campus he feels the same sense of fear as he did when he entered as a boy and frankly, this feeling of something bad or ominous in the making lurked through each page I turned.

…. like stale air in an unopened room, was the well known fear which had surrounded and filled those days, so much of it that I hadn’t even known it was there. Because, unfamiliar with the absence of fear and what that was like, I had not been able to identify its presence.[ii]

 The story begins during the summer of 1942 and continues through the academic year of 1942/43, a time of world war that factored into the minds and hearts of the boys who knew their immediate future after graduation would include military service. For Gene and his best friend Phineas (Finney), this is a tragic year.

“I don’t really believe we bombed Central Europe, do you,” said Finney thoughtfully.

 …Bombs in Central Europe were completely unreal to us here, not because we couldn’t imagine it—a thousand newspaper photographs and newsreels had given us a pretty accurate idea of such a sight—but because our place here was too fair for us to accept something like that. We spent that summer in complete selfishness, I’m happy to say. The people in the world who could be selfish in the summer of 1942 were a small band, and I’m glad we took advantage of it.[iii]

Against the backdrop of WWII, Knowles effectively creates an insular sense of boarding-school life; that even though the world was deep into the war the boys’ world was concerned with their athletic prowess and academic victories, their complicated and confusing relationships with each other, secret societies, and the rule-breaking of boys living so intimately with each other.

As someone who attended a large public college, I have always been fascinated by small eastern schools. I fantasize about the ideal setting, atmosphere, students and course work. But I have never come up with such a notion as the Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session, where Gene was forced by Finney to start each meeting by jumping off a tree branch into a river.

In fact, while I was drawn into the story by Knowles’ well-defined setting and characters, the main characters I found hard to like. Finney’s manipulation of the boys, especially Gene and Gene’s inability to stand up for himself against Finney was hard to take. The pall of danger cast over the novel from the beginning made me fear a catastrophe akin to Lord of the Flies might break out any minute.

And when it happened, when a death came, it was almost a relief! I don’t know what this says about me as a person, but I was glad for this break-through in the atmosphere of doom. And as the novel came to a close, I found I liked Finney and Gene better once I understood their story.

I think the dynamics between the students, their idiosyncrasies, their individual perspectives on the world that were so well-defined still makes this a relevant choice for today’s teenage and adult audiences.

Phineas, [said Gene], “you wouldn’t be any good in the war….”

 “They’d get you some place at the front and there’d be a lull in the fighting, and the next thing anyone knew you’d be over with the Germans or the Japs asking if they’d like to field a baseball team against our side. You’d be sitting in one of their command posts, teaching them English. Yes, you’d get confused and borrow one of their uniforms, and you’d lend them one of yours. Sure, that’s just what would happen. You’d get things so scrambled up nobody would know who to fight any more. You’d make mess, a terrible mess, Finny, out of the war.”[iv]

__________

[i] 22.
[ii] 1.
[iii] 22-23.
[iv] 182.

This is my New Hampshire state choice for the Emerald City Reading New England challenge, Back to the Classics and a book for my Classics Club book list.