HOME SCHOOL BOOK REVIEW
Book: A Separate Peace
Author: John Knowles
Cover Illustrator: JimTierney
Publisher: Scribner, 2003
Related website: http://www.SimonandSchuster.com (publisher)
Language level: 5
(1=nothing objectionable; 2=common euphemisms and/or childish slang terms; 3=some cursing and/or profanity; 4=a lot of cursing and/or profanity; 5=obscenity and/or vulgarity)
Recommended reading level: Ages 16 and up
Rating: ** 2 stars (POOR)
Reviewed by Wayne S. Walker
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Knowles, John. A Separate Peace (published in 1959 and republished in 2003 by Scribner, an imprint of Simon and Schuster Inc., 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York City, NY 10020). It is 1942, during the early years of World War II, and sixteen year old Gene Forrester, the introverted, intellectual protagonist, is an “Upper Middler” student at Devon School, an all boys prep boarding academy in Devon, NH, during a special summer session. His roommate and best friend is the charismatic, athletic Phineas (nicknamed Finny—we never know his last name), also sixteen. One of Finny’s ideas is to create a “Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session,” with Gene and himself as charter members, and he creates a rite of initiation by having members jump into the Devon River from a large, high tree. Gene becomes a little envious of Finny, and as the two are about to jump off the tree, for the first time together, Gene jounces the branch they are standing on, causing Finny to fall and shatter his leg. It is deemed an “accident,” but rumors start that Gene purposely caused Finny’s fall.
The rest of the book follows Gene’s description of the time span from the summer of 1942 to the summer of 1943, during which time World War II occupies the schoolboys’ attention. However, fellow student Brinker Hadley sets up a show trial and, based upon his shaking of the branch, accuses Gene of trying to kill Finny. In anger, Finny leaves but on his way out falls down a flight of stairs and again breaks the leg he had shattered before. This time, there are serious complications. What is Finny’s real attitude towards all this? Will he and Gene be reconciled? And what will happen to Finny? Someone recommended this book to me, but I don’t remember now who it was. There might have been a good story here, but it is rather hard to find. The plot moves very slowly, painfully so at times. One could charitably say that it is thoughtful, even psychological. Perhaps the relationship of Gene and Finney might be considered a metaphor of “a period when the entire country was losing its innocence to World War II.” However, one parent whose high school freshman had it as required reading read it too and said that it was rather dull. I would tend to agree.
Then there is the language. Quite a few instances of cursing, with the “d” and “h” words appearing frequently, and profanity, with various forms of taking the Lord’s name in vain, are found, as well as some vulgarity. Finny refers to “a swift kick in the a**.” One of the boys uses the “s” word. And at the mock trial, Finney shouts (and this is how it is printed in my edition), “You collect every f—ing fact there is in the world!” Yes, I know that teenage boys talk like that. I was a teenage boy once and spent my share of time in locker rooms and on playing fields listening to other guys. But they shouldn’t, and if they do they should have their mouths washed out with soap. Oh wait, I get it now. The more bad language a book has nowadays, the more likely it is to be considered a “modern classic” and become required reading in schools. Also references to smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol occur. To be honest, I really did not care for the book and cannot recommend it, especially for those seeking godliness since it promotes a rather worldly view of life. One other thing needs to be mentioned, and that is the claim by some of homoeroticism between Gene and Finny. I would not even bring this up, but in my edition the Afterword by David Levithan suggests it. However, Knowles denied any such intentions, stating in a 1987 newspaper interview, “If there had been any homoeroticism between Phineas and Gene, I would have put in the book, I assure you. It simply wasn’t there.” Beware those Afterwords! The book was made into a 1972 American drama film directed by Larry Peerce and starring Parker Stevenson.