Source of book: Audiobook from the library
A Separate Peace is considered one of the classic coming-of-age stories, as well as a book that challenges the supposed glories of war. The story itself is about high school boys, but also serves as a metaphor for the senseless violence that leads to wars in the first place.
The book is narrated by Gene, a boy from the South who attends an exclusive boarding school in New England. “Devon” is based on Phillips Exeter Academy, where the author went as a boy. Even the motto is directly borrowed from the school. While it was boys only at the time Knowles attended, as well as when he published the book in 1959, it became co-ed in 1970, and the motto was changed to be gender neutral as well as to focus on education, not “becoming a man.”
Gene’s roommate and best friend (and occasional frenemy) is Phineas, aka Finny, a natural athlete and leader. Gene, in contrast, is decent, but not outstanding in sports, but is in the running for academic glory. Finny is also a surprisingly un-egotistical character, given his gifts. He literally wants to think the best of everyone, and Gene’s belief that Finny is jealous of him is all in Gene’s head. Finny is based on Knowles’ classmate David Hackett, who went on to work in the Justice Department. The other character based on a real person is Brinker, a student who insists on law and order, until he becomes disillusioned with the war and his father’s rosy view of it. Brinker was based on Gore Vidal, who apparently liked the book.
The book is set during World War Two, with the boys on the brink of being draft eligible - which means most of them, being rich kids, try to figure out how to get into a less dangerous job with the Navy or Coast Guard, or the Army Air Corps. But there is also the question of whether the war will last long enough for them to serve. (Knowles himself had a career much like Gene’s - being shuttled around but never seeing combat.)
From the beginning, it is clear that Finny is going to play a central role in the book. He creates the "Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session," with an initiation that involves jumping off of a tree branch into the river. But things to wrong when Gene and Finny attempt a double jump. For reasons Gene never truly understands, he joggles the tree, and Finny falls off, breaking his leg badly enough that it is expected to end his sports career.
Gene feels tremendously guilty, and confesses his role to Finny, who refuses to believe him. This tension pervades the rest of the book, until the tragic conclusion.
I think it is this tension that the author uses to illuminate his metaphor of war. Gene is, it is clear to us, although not always to him, jealous of Finny, who has the extroversion and natural likeability Gene does not and never will have. And yet, he genuinely loves Finny, even if Gene essentially lives through Finny rather than form his own identity. The impulse that leads to the accident is a momentary reaction, a fleeting idea, and one not truly intended to cause the catastrophic harm it does.
And this is how so many wars start too. There are unresolved jealousies at the social level, and an impulse can cause the spark that leads to mass destruction. World War One is probably a better example of this than World War Two, but at the level of the ordinary foot soldier, the analogy holds. There is no genuine personal malice between soldiers of each side, but they kill anyway. In the end, there is senseless death on all sides.
I think one reason this book is a classic is that it has a lot of unresolved psychological complexity. Even at the end - 15 years later - Gene is still trying to figure out himself and his relationships with his schoolmates. His insights are important, but they are limited. He can, at best, only partially know himself.
The book is also fascinating because, amidst the central tragedy, there are moments of humor. It isn’t a particularly dark book most of the time, although things do end badly for a number of characters. Knowles captures a particular moment and place - the age of 16 at a boy’s school - and the fragility and incomplete maturity of teens. That the consequences of normal development and behavior turn out so badly has more to do with bad luck and fate than with any ill will.
I found it interesting that the book has been challenged quite a bit. There are probably two reasons for this. One is the most obvious: there is a bit of rather mild swearing. I mean, nothing major, and perfectly in context. I would have no hesitation in letting my kids read this one.
The other is a supposed homoeroticism in the book. I think probably the best way to explain this is to say that any strong emotional connection between male characters tends to be read as homoerotic in our culture, in a way that it wouldn’t be in other cultures. Modern American culture is a bit freaked out about any display of physical affection between men, and males are trained to avoid showing emotion, particularly any emotion culturally categorized as “female.” This is a particularly damaging dysfunction of our culture, not least because it makes male-male connections “gay” even if sex is not involved.
To be clear, there is no sex whatsoever in this book. You could read this to a five year old without getting any awkward questions. At least about sex. There are barely any female characters at all (and they are extremely minor.) Nothing the boys do could reasonably be considered sexual. So, unless you want to read a close friendship that way, there is no reason to make that leap.
So, I kind of wonder if the real reason it got challenged as much as it did had more to do with its skeptical view of war and patriotism, with its disillusionment with “glory” and “manhood” and “country.” And, I have to wonder, perhaps those who love to challenge or ban books simply can’t deal with uncomfortable, complex emotions - and this book is full of them.
The audiobook was narrated by Spike McClure. Not bad, but not a particularly remarkable job. In particular, he didn’t distinguish the voices much, so dialogue was a bit harder to follow. The book felt like more of a reading than a performance, if that makes sense.