January 17, 1925

Robert Cormier Born

On this day in 1925, author Robert Cormier was born into Leominster's tight-knit French-Canadian neighborhood, and he remained there for the rest of his life. After graduating from Fitchburg State University, he began a 30-year career as a newspaperman. But it was the novels he wrote for young adults that earned him a national reputation. A cheerful, mild-mannered man himself, he created characters caught in the grip of self-doubt, peer pressure, and adult expectation. When Fitchburg State established a Cormier Archive in 1981, the author expressed surprise that anyone would want his old papers. "It's nice, though, to have all those boxes out of the house," he said. "The closets were getting pretty full, and my wife was starting to complain."

His work is regularly included on lists of the most frequently banned young-adult books.

Robert Cormier grew up in French Hill, as Leominster's French-Canadian neighborhood was known, and never lived more than three miles from the house where he was born.

After graduating from Fitchburg State University, he began working as a reporter for local newspapers. As a reviewer for the New York Times later said, he was "the picture of a small-city newspaperman — slight, sort of wispy, gray; a man who's reported the fires and Lions Club meetings and courthouse corruption. He's also a nice man, a family man."

His biographer describes him as a man of "kindly compassion" and "sunny frankness." Yet Robert Cormier became famous for writing young-adult novels that are so dark many parents and teachers consider them too disturbing for teenagers. His work is regularly included on lists of the most frequently banned young-adult books.

As a reviewer for the New York Times later said, he was "the picture of a small-city newspaperman — slight, sort of wispy, gray; a man who's reported the fires and Lions Club meetings and courthouse corruption. He's also a nice man, a family man."

A reviewer might complain that Cormier "looks with adult bitterness at the inherent evil of human nature and the way young people can be dehumanized into power-hungry and bloodthirsty adults," but his readers disagree.

Teenagers embrace Cormier's tales as honest reflections of what it takes to stay true to one's beliefs and ideals in a world marked by peer pressure, powerful adult institutions, and hypocrisy. Even when his characters meet with defeat, Cormier reaffirms the importance of their struggles.

Cormier himself suggested an answer to the question of how such a gentle, happy person came to write such grim stories. He explained that, even within the safe, secure, small world of French Hill, he had encountered evil.

One of his most powerful childhood memories was of looking out the window of his classroom and seeing his house on fire. When he wanted to run home and make sure his family was safe, the nun teaching the class insisted he recite a rosary before he could leave. Cormier traced his anger toward the church and other institutions of social control to this early experience.

A reviewer might complain that Cormier "looks with adult bitterness at the inherent evil of human nature and the way young people can be dehumanized into power-hungry and bloodthirsty adults," but his readers disagree.

Cormier's transition to high school was difficult. Although he stayed in the French Hill neighborhood, he moved from Catholic to public school. He excelled as a student and particularly as a writer, but felt the sting of rejection as he struggled to break into new social circles. His high school unhappiness is reflected in The Chocolate War, a dark but moving tale of a boy who is ostracized for his refusal to participate in a school fundraiser.

Cormier was also interested in the emotional damage that could be done by internal forces. When his father became ill with cancer, Cormier was at his side every day; they never spoke of the illness, of the pain it caused, or of the nearness of death. They both pretended that all was well. Cormier later came to see this sort of play-acting as an unhealthy defense mechanism.

After his father's death, he wrote Now and at the Hour about an ordinary man who learns of his approaching death and faces it head on. Here Cormier's hero remains genuinely himself, human and fully alive, until the very end.

He stressed self-reliance and the importance of taking responsibility for one's own actions, despite pressure to conform and comply.

Cormier's stories urged his young readers to "rage against the system," whether those forces were external, internal, or eternal. He stressed self-reliance and the importance of taking responsibility for one's own actions, despite pressure to conform and comply. Robert Cormier died of lung cancer in November of 2000. He spent his entire life in the same central Massachusetts city and found inspiration for his novels there. In 30 years as a newspaperman, he excelled at writing human interest stories and won awards for his accounts of individuals overcoming adversity. He wrote 13 books, almost all of which are still in print, and over 100 short stories. His fiction received many honors, and he was recognized as the leading young-adult author of his generation.

If You Go

Fitchburg State Library's Cormier Archive is located in the Amelia V. Gallucci-Cirio Library. A description of the collection is available online: fitchburgstate.libguides.com/ld.php?content_id=24414901

Location

This Mass Moment occurred in the Central region of Massachusetts.

Sources

Presenting Robert Cormier, by Patricia J. Campbell (Twayne Publishers, 1985).

Themes

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