Despite being new student and freshman at an all-boys high school, Jerry Reinault knows better than to mess with the well-known—but unofficial—student power structure, The Vigils. Everyone’s aware that it’s this “organization”, headed by wise-guy Archie Costello, which begets hierarchy, maintains “order” and doles out responsibilities, essentially relegating underclassmen and outsiders to otherwise thankless tasks of school fundraisers. Now that the annual chocolate sale has essentially doubled its quota, everyone has to work just a little extra, everyone except the stubbornly obstinate Jerry that is. While Jerry’s stern refusal to participate is only uncomfortable at first, his sustained defiance in the face of increasingly hazardous circumstances soon culminates in an all-out war, one in which it seems Jerry has no other choice but to surrender his will to The Vigils' or suffer the brutal consequences.
Cormier’s publication of Chocolate War in 1974 had an immediate and lasting impact, firmly setting him up as one of YA’s capstone authors. Though the premise of the novel may seem outdated or overblown, the focus of the story's not so much about what’s going on as it is about the internal motivations of the characters and the impending potential for disaster. Still mourning his mother's death from cancer, Jerry’s nonconformist resolution stems from a need to know his actions have meaning, that power and authority (to at least some degree) is possible by his own initiative. Conversely Archie, though driven by an obvious lust for power, also seeks fulfillment through personal enterprise, a manifestation of broader events sprung by his own influence of control. Those unfamiliar with how serious things can get at an all male school may be a little off put by the scenario, but readers won’t have a problem gravitating towards Cormier’s mastery of characterization and accurate depiction of mob-rule mentality.