A Separate Peace
Tucked away in their Georgian-style dorms in quiet New Hampshire, the all-male Devon School class of 1943 is insulated from world events. Between boating exercises, Latin translations, trigonometry exams, and general roughhousing, they clip newspaper photos of Roosevelt and Churchill and laugh about the old white men who conspire to perpetuate an international hoax. But as the boys’ eighteenth birthdays appear on the horizon, the war overseas encroaches on Devon’s green Central Commons.
This is the setting of John Knowles’ A Separate Peace. The protagonist is Gene, a self-aware scholar drawn into the charismatic circle of Phineas, his jock roommate. Finny invents games and secret societies, breaks school athletic records, sweet-talks the faculty into excusing minor infractions, and accepts the entire study body into his brotherhood as unhesitatingly as he assumes his own acceptance by them. Gene worships Finny as a hero, with all the idealism, intensity, and wavering self-confidence of adolescence.
An incident sparked by Gene’s devotion and jealousy marks the beginning of the end of their blissful ignorance. By the autumn of their senior year, “in addition to classes and sports and clubs, there was the war.” Each young man in his own way confronts the erosion of his childhood. Brinker Hadley composes his “Shortest War Poem Ever Written: The War / Is a bore.” Leper Lepellier drops out of school and enlists with the ski troops. Gene hopes it will all go away, and submits to Phineas, who insists on training him for the ’44 Olympics.
Knowles writes an engaging story of the coming of age of the “greatest generation.” Gene is a sympathetic character, both because Knowles portrays him with authenticity and because the reader has the historical hindsight to appreciate what Gene and his friends will soon face. The language of war is used to great effect, such as in the following passage about Saturday afternoons in a boys’ school:
And these Saturdays are worst in the late winter when the snow has lost its novelty and its shine, and the school seems to have been reduced to only a network of drains. During the brief thaw in the early afternoon there is a dismal gurgling of dirty water seeping down pipes and along gutters, a gray seamy shifting beneath the crust of snow, which cracks to show patches of frozen mud beneath. Shrubbery loses its bright snow headgear and stands bare and frail, too undernourished to hide the drains it was intended to hide. These are the days when going into any building you cross a mat of dirt and cinders led in by others before you, thinning and finally trailing off in the corridors. The sky is an empty hopeless gray and gives the impression that this is its eternal shade. Winter’s occupation seems to have conquered, overrun and destroyed everything, so that now there is no longer any resistance movement left in nature; all the juices are dead, every sprig of vitality snapped, and now winter itself, an old, corrupt, tired conqueror, loosens its grip on the desolation, recedes a little, grows careless in its watch; sick of victory and enfeebled by the absence of challenge, it begins itself to withdraw from the ruined countryside. The drains alone are active, and on these Saturdays their noises sound a dull recessional to winter.
This is a short novel, but potent; a great tale of the conflicts of adolescence, the formation of character in the face of change, and the devastation of war.
Thanks to those of you who left comments recommending this book. It is one of my selections for the Winter Reading Challenge.