‘Nobody out of context': representations of child corruption in Robert Cormier’s crime novels

Ciocia, S. (2012) ‘Nobody out of context': representations of child corruption in Robert Cormier’s crime novels. In: Gavin, A., ed. Robert Cormier. New Casebooks. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 64-79 ISBN 9780230313323

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Robert Cormier has made his name as the “founding father of YA dark realism” (Mitzi Myers), delivering to his readers an unedulcorated portrayal of American society, where gratuitous violence is often lurking around the corner, and evil is to be found in the most unsuspected of places. Given this thematic concern, his writing has frequently focused on the investigation of delinquent behaviour, deliberately revisiting the conventions of the thriller and of crime fiction.

In recent years, there has been a noticeable increase in fictional representations of children as both victims and perpetrators of violent crimes, possibly on the score of a similar trend in the number of real incidents to have been given visibility in the news. Prize-winning, bestselling novels such as Jonathan Trigell’s Boy A (2004) and Lioner Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin (2005) – loosely inspired, respectively, by the Jamie Bulger murder and by the phenomenon of high-school shootings – are clearly part of an ongoing, revisionist debate about the myth of childhood innocence. This essay will explore the extent to which Cormier’s later crime novels – We All Fall Down (1991), Tenderness (1998), and the posthumous The Rag and Bone Shop (2001) – do indeed participate in the debunking of this myth.

In earlier texts, Cormier had dealt with aggressive forms of intimidation and peer pressure, but these would typically climax into relatively minor incidents, such as the final fight in The Chocolate War (1974), which, gory as it is, ends with no fatalities. In more serious cases of physical and psychological violence – such as the murders and the psychological manipulation in I Am the Cheese (1977), or the kidnapping and killings in After the First Death (1979) – the villains had invariably been adults (or damaged, hence impressionable, young characters), and children had only numbered amongst the victims.

The case studies in this essay, instead, all figure child or adolescent perpetrators of brutal crimes against their peers. However, short of subscribing to the now wide-spread rhetoric of ‘the criminalization of youth’, and contrary to Cormier’s reputation as a relentless pessimist, these later texts in fact seem to perpetuate the traditional notion of childhood innocence, suggesting in no uncertain terms that a child criminal is made, and not born.

The young villains in the three case studies can usually claim extenuating circumstances, because of their environment and/or upbringing (a position which replicates the Romantic dichotomy between nature and culture). Alternatively, they are presented as aberrations, through the language of pathology (see the Avenger in Fall, or Eric in Tenderness), or are sidelined and effectively turned into functions of the plot (see Brad in Bone).

While these novels do not necessarily explain, let alone justify, the crimes committed by their young protagonists, they do paint a picture where “nobody [is] out of context”. The corruption of innocence is thus inscribed within larger power games involving adult characters, and is shown to be brought about by the child coming in contact with the world of adult manipulation, as is made particularly evident in Cormier’s last, disturbing work.

Item Type: Book Section
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PS American literature > PS700 Individual authors > PS3550 1961-2000
Divisions: pre Nov-2014 > Faculty of Arts and Humanities > English and Language Studies
Depositing User: Dr Stefania Ciocia
Date Deposited: 03 Dec 2012 16:38
Last Modified: 11 Dec 2014 14:10
URI: https://create.canterbury.ac.uk/id/eprint/11304

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Last edited: 29/06/2016 12:23:00