Thursday, November 7, 2013

Knowles Cuts Two Ways With A Classic

A Separate Peace
A Separate Peace by John Knowles used to be required reading in high school. It isn't so much anymore as new teachers have sided with students. They see one of the best passive-aggressive character studies in literature as boring because the action is less physical and more mental.

For others, the book remains etched in their memories as it depicts the dark side of adolescence inside the volatile world of a boys boarding school. And despite being written in 1959, it feels especially relevant this year after reading The Yonahlossee Riding Camp For Girls by Anton DiSclafani.

While the books are different in setting and central theme, they share some commonality in that the narrators are difficult to like and not necessarily trustworthy in their telling of events. And yet, despite their own preclusion toward dishonesty, the story is told through their perspective.

A Separate Peace is intellectually rousing and darkly beautiful. 

A Separate Peace is the story of Gene Forrester. He is a quiet, intellectual student at Devon School and his best friend and roommate is the polar opposite. Whereas Gene can keep up as an athlete, his real strength resides with academics. His roommate can be described as everything else.

Finny is charming, self-confident, athletic, and a daredevil without ever being arrogant. It is as if he knows himself to be extraordinary, but wears it like someone might wear a jacket. He doesn't have any inclination to best or defeat anyone. He merely enjoys competing with himself, relishing the idea that others might join in his long list of personal challenges.

A Separate Peace
At the opening, it seems Gene admires these qualities. But by the fourth chapter, he become conscious of his secret and growing resentment toward Finny. He is weary of Finny being the natural leader, the better athlete, and the more charismatic student who can talk his way out of anything.

At first, he attempts to justify his feelings by pretending Finny is jealous of his academic superiority. But as this proves not to be the case, the invented deadly rivalry becomes the catalyst for something spiteful, evil, and undeserved. And worse, it becomes the catalyst for their unjust codependacy later.

At the dark heart of A Separate Peace, identity and transformation become pivotal themes. They are not just important for these two boys but several other classmates as well. As a summer of innocence metamorphoses into the winter of discontent, Elwin "Leper" Lepellier becomes the boy to enlist in the military and Brinker Hadley finds room to assert himself as a new leader at Devon.

A few graphs about author John Knowles. 

John Knowles was born in 1926 in Fairmont, West Virginia. He left home at 15 to attend Phillips Exeter Academy, a boarding school in New Hampshire. He joined the Army Air Corps as a cadet in 1945 before enrolling at Yale University. He graduated from Yale in 1949.

John Knowles
He spent his next seven years working as a journalist and freelance writer. Eventually, after traveling to London, he become an associate editor at Holiday magazine. His first novel was published in 1959. It became his best known novel, although he had written several in the course of his career.

What is especially interesting about the book is that it does borrow a lot from his life. The characters in A Separate Peace attended their boarding school during the same years that Knowles did. He too attended summer seasons. And there was a club that dared initiates to jump out of a tall tree into the river.

Finny was modeled after David Hackett, who served under Robert F. Kennedy in the Department of Justice. However, Knowles is also clear that the work is fiction. His school years were not plagued by the same kinds of violence.

A Separate Peace By John Knowles Climbs To 9.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

It seems to me that A Separate Peace is often given to young readers too soon to appreciate the texture of this classic tale. They might fare better reading the book when they are the same age as the narrator, looking back on adolescence rather than experiencing it. Except, of course, those lucky few who find predictive in the prose. You never know where your identity might end up from year to year.

A Separate Peace by John Knowles is available on Amazon. The book can also be ordered from Barnes & Noble or downloaded for iBooks. The audiobook is available from iTunes, with Spike McClure narrating as a meticulously cast Gene looking back on what starts as an unforgettable summer. It has been made into a movie twice; neither reaching the height of the book.
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