Monday, December 29, 2008

Bookend: A Separate Peace

One side effect of my incompetence with numbers is an aversion to the subject of history. Did Columbus sail the ocean blue in 1692…1492…1842? It could be 1992 for all I know. My mother, a self-proclaimed history buff (and fan), is ashamed. I just never took much interest in a subject that relied so heavily on numbers. Even in elementary school, before memorizing dates became the standard theme of history tests, I thought my history classes were classes about war. World War I, World War II…here we go with numbers again.

But, every once in a while, a story (sometimes real, sometimes fictional) surfaces from one of those “meaningless dates” and I’m grateful that someone put that moment in history into a story I could enjoy. If history had been taught through stories I would have tolerated it much more.

I just finished reading A Separate Peace by John Knowles and although his novel is fictional, it is set in a very real time: 1943, a couple years before the end of World War II (yes, I looked that up). For me, the best thing about this novel was that while WWII loomed over the characters like a gray cloud, the story itself wasn’t about the war. Set in a boy’s boarding school in New Hampshire, the novel tells a story about a personal war between a 17-year-old adolescent, Gene (the narrator) and his “best friend” Phineas (aka “Finny”). And in a way, it is a story about Gene's internal war/struggle to find his place in the school.

Like any good book, I was invested in the characters. I cared about them in their little microcosm. I attended an old, New England college and I could relate to that sense that while you are there, you are in a “bubble.” You are isolated from the larger issues facing the world. You are in a peaceful place, but even in the most sheltered places, there are conflicts. Gene is most certainly a flawed character, but what 17-year-old boy isn't? This is a good read for boys particularly because it deals with the competitive nature between males, which is so often used to mask their real emotions like jealousy, affection or shame.

I also enjoyed the book because it was spot-on with its descriptions of place. Anyone who has spent time in New England will understand the way the seasons take on certain personas; the way the scenery actually becomes part of your mood. Knowles has a way of describing the seasons to metaphorically represent the events and changes happening through the school year. Just as the seasons change, so do the friendships and feelings of the young men who go there…and so does the war, which by the end of the story, has taken over a building on campus and overtaken some of their classmates.

Considered a "minor classic," A Separate Peace was a cleverly disguised history lesson and well worth the read.

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