Discussing Robert Cormiers’ Heroes Essay

Robert Cormier is a famous and highly successful author who wrote books such as: ‘Heroes’, The chocolate war’, ‘Beyond the chocolate war’, ‘Fade’, ‘Tenderness’, ‘After the first death’, ‘I am the cheese’, ‘The rag and bone shop’, ‘The bumblebee flies anyway’, ‘Summer in Frenchtown’, ‘We all fall down’, ‘Tunes for bears to dance to’ and ‘In the middle of the night’. Cormier was born in 1925 in French hill, a French-Canadian neighbourhood of Leominster, Massachusetts. Bought up in a busy household of seven brothers and sisters, he attended a catholic grammar school- some nuns gave him a terrible time there but one read an early poem of his and claimed ‘you’re a writer!’ He married in 1948 and he and his wife had four children- all four were sent to local catholic schools.

Robert Cormier was a controversial author, and semi-autobiographical accounts appear in all his books. Cormier believed people should ‘tell it like it is’ (quoted from an interview) and that teenagers should learn the truth. This may be why he writes in such a frank style with gory details. E.g. ‘my legs are gone… No more dancing for me… No more sweet young things… No more anything’ He thinks children shouldn’t be patronised and that happy endings aren’t always the case, so children should be shown the reality of life. Most books he’s written are in the first person and the main character is usually a boy of 12-18. Most characters he’s created are shy and timid, which is perhaps a reflection on himself as a boy.

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The book ‘Heroes’, is set in Frenchtown based upon French hill in Monument, after WWII. This is reflected by the use of the French-Canadian accent by Mrs. Belander. We also know people in Frenchtown have French influenced names: e.g. Marie LaCroix and Joey Leblanc. In addition in chapter 3 Mrs. Belander asks Francis a question in French and Francis is able to answer.

The main protagonist throughout the book is Francis Cassavant. However the book is also based on the stories of Nicole Renard and Larry LaSalle. Cormier uses dramatic irony and the audience doesn’t always find pleasure in prediction whilst reading. Some problems are resolved in this story- others aren’t. First person is used as Francis retells us his past whilst talking about his present, and hopefully future. Pearl Harbour is mentioned in chapter 7 but not directly.

The chapter ends with him planning on meeting with Nicole on December 7th 1941, the date the Japanese launched an attack Pearl Harbour. Cormier uses this event s an axis for the main events- Americas involvement in the war is a catalyst for Francis’ personal life. The story is mainly based events during WWII and how people (Francis Cassavant and ‘war heroes’ beside him) were affected. Cormier spices up the novel with a story of a mission set to be carried out by Francis- to kill Larry LaSalle the man who raped ‘his girl’ when he and Nicole were just 15. Graphic and shocking details are used again by Cormier to describe: Francis’ appearance after he fell on a grenade (to save other CIS), the rape and many other incidents in the book.

Cormier writes in a structure which varies chapter lengths E.g. chapter 7 and chapter 8, and also chapter 10 and 11. This is to keep the reader drawn in, so they don’t get bored reading endless descriptions chapter after chapter. The beginning is filled with questions and he introduces the storyline and the main characters, the middle is leading up to ‘the mission’ and the tracing down of Nicole, the resolution is finding Larry, only to find he can’t kill him. He commits suicide and Francis seeks Nicole only to find she’s drastically change.

We are still left with questions at the end such as: ‘Will he call Dr. Abram?’, ‘Will he track down Enrico and visit the hospital?’ and ‘Is there a hint of hope for Francis?’

Emotional involvement is present which keeps the reader involved and curious. The book ‘Heroes’ is in 1st person narrative throughout the story. Cormier doesn’t write in chronological order- we know this as he uses flashbacks and different accounts which hook the reader For example he begins chapter 1 after the war on his return into Frenchtown, which is the present. In contrasting chapter 2 he talks about the past (when he was in seventh grade) and when he first laid eyes on Nicole Renard. The effect of this is in direct. It’s as if he gives the whole story and all the information in small doses to allow his readers to digest it.

As we read we are continually faced with questions like ‘Will Francis find Larry LaSalle?’ ‘Will he complete his mission?’ and ‘Will Francis ever see or be with Nicole again?’ Cormier writes in an unpredictable structure, his ending is not a ‘happy ending’ as you would normally expect in books. The conclusion is unexpected and readers are left unsatisfied, with an open ending. The effect is that it challenges the reader to accept reality and to think more about the theme: ‘What is a hero?’ rather than the plot. In fact our feelings mirror that of Francis- we are empty and can only learn from the tragic event.

From the very beginning ‘Heroes’, right up until chapter 14 we learn things about Larry LaSalle, and we learn of Francis’ hatred for him. The first chapter leaves the reader questioning Larry with questions such as: ‘who is he?’ ‘How has he hurt Francis?’ And ‘Why does Francis want to kill him?’ The first mentioning of Larry is made by Francis: ‘And, finally, I pray for Larry LaSalle.’ We are told he is praying for Larry as Sister Gertrude taught himself and others in the third grade to ‘pray for your enemies, for those who have done you harm.’ We then learn later in the chapter he fell guilty knowing he has just prayed for the man he is going to kill. Readers are given the impression he has done something truly evil to have Francis wanting revenge. Francis is set up by Cormier as a contrasting ‘hero’ with a villain, Larry, and we expect these simple character types to develop.

Following this we are given snippets of information about Larry LaSalle however in chapter 5 we learn about The Wreck Centre and how Larry LaSalle turned it around. Francis describes his first meeting with him: ‘A tall slim man stepped into view, a lock of blonde hair tumbling over his forehead, a smile that revealed dazzling movie-star teeth’ he also mentions that he was like a athlete with broad shoulders and a dancer with narrow hips, as if he encompasses masculine and feminine.

Larry was applauded for his presence at the Wreck Centre. Larry led classes in dancing, arts and crafts; he organized a choir group and directed musical shows. He seems almost perfect- to perfect. We are given hints he has a dark past as we are told he’d ‘gotten into trouble’ in New York. But Francis and the others had brushed the rumours of as they were dazzled by his talent, his energy and were happy to be in his presence. Finally we learn Nicole Renard instantly caught the attention of Larry LaSalle whilst dancing. Cormier shocks the readers by presenting to them a ‘hero’ rather then the villain they were expecting.

Back in the present, In chapter 6 Francis tells us of his ‘wrapped- up gun in his duffel bag’ whilst having a drink with other veterans in the St Jude Club he suspiciously asks: ‘Has anybody heard when Larry LaSalle’s coming back?’ Veteran Arthur raises his glass and calls out: ‘To Larry LaSalle. The patron saint of the Wreck Centre’, this is ironic as at this point the reader remains confused at Larry being named a ‘saint’, the reader begins thinking: ‘Is it Francis who is misjudging Larry?’. Joe LaFontaine raises his own glass and adds: ‘And to the kids who were lucky to know him’ the old Strangler even pours himself a glass of red wine and declares: ‘To the Silver Star and the men who wear it. And to Larry LaSalle, the best of the best…’ again the reader is puzzled ‘how did he earn this Silver Star?’ and ‘What has Larry done to be admired for?’

In following chapters we learn how Larry reels his victims in and how he makes them feel special. Throughout chapter 7 we are told the story of how Larry LaSalle encourages Francis to take up table tennis and lets him win in a competition between himself and the youngster. Larry states that Francis and Nicole are special to him whilst talking about Nicole’s musical show ‘Follies and Fancies’ on Sunday and Francis’ table tennis tournament on Saturday, whilst dancing with Nicole he acts very intimately with her: ‘…their faces almost touching, their lips only an inch or so from a kiss…’ all his body language and the way he is with Nicole indicates his desire for her.

Cormier again confuses the reader, making them question Larry’s intentions but at the same time trying to understand Francis’ hatred for Larry- was he a love rival? Cormier talk about Larry enlisting in the armed services in chapter 9 and how this is his first disappearance from Frenchtown. Seen as a hero, and worshipped for earning a silver star whilst absent he is missed and his memory is kept alive. Cormier finishes the chapter with a hook for the reader- by now they realise Larry’s exposition is nearing.

Chapter 11 is where the story really begins. Larry’s homecoming is one not to be forgotten. Cormier describes Larry LaSalle as a ‘bright Pied Piper for the children in the bleakness of the Depression’ which is very sinister and makes the reader uneasy; this is as The Pied Piper led children away from their parents with a flute. Francis describes him differently. He still has his ‘movie-star smile’, skin tanned, small wrinkles and glowing, his slenderness is described as ‘knife-like now, lethal, his features sharper, nose and cheekbones.’ Military similes are used as he has returned from the war, the effect on the reader is that Larry is now seen more as a threat, and is beginning to side with Francis. He continues to manipulate Francis, just as before but now for different reasons. We suspect Nicole is anticipating the rape as she whispers to Francis ‘Stay close to me’ whilst parading down the shadowed streets with Larry and others.

After the party had died down Larry was quick to usher Francis out, telling him he looks tired and to go home. The cruel manipulation soon gets the better of him after letting down Nicole, been given a ‘get going’ look by Larry and a final plea by Nicole ‘Don’t go’, he hurries out. Francis recalls waiting outside and listening to the rape. Cormier uses words such as: ‘sigh’, ‘moan and rustle of clothing’, ‘small sounds’, ‘sudden gasp’ and ‘whimpering, like a small animal caught and trapped, moaning distinct now’ Cormier describes how Francis is numbed, which is part of the reason he does nothing to help, he is in shock and his heart is breaking with each sound he hears. The rape is a series of sounds; each one is heard by the reader as Francis hears them; we share his initial disbelief and his final numbing shock.

Larry then disappears for the second time from Frenchtown, leaving Nicole and Francis distraught. The readers have now been taught about Larry LaSalle’s true self, a disgusting paedophile. Cormier begins chapter 14, in the present with Francis on his way to ‘complete his mission’ he has left two previous chapters not mentioning Larry to give the reader a break from the intense storyline. Whilst having his final encounter with Larry, Francis calmly speaks to Larry as old friends, which is his first mistake in going to kill him. Larry still makes Francis feel special by telling him not to hide his face as it’s a symbol of how ‘brave he was’ and the Silver Star he ‘earned’. Francis remains decent to Larry and says how he earned one too. Larry continues asking him many questions, acting interested and caring.

This again throws the reader who has been waiting for a dramatic showdown. Francis tells Larry of how he feel on the grenade not to save other CI’s but to die. In fact, this meeting is a confessional for Francis and although we have been willing a violent attack, the reader feels some satisfaction as extra details are revealed to us. He tells him of why he wanted to die. Because of the rape. Larry tells Francis about ‘the sweet young things’ which leaves readers and Francis thinking ‘Has he done this before?’ He continues with ‘I love the sweet young things’ this is how he explains his actions by saying everyone sins and this is his most tempting sin of all. Now Larry is no longer a saint but a sinner. Cormier’s use of dialogue echoes and contrasts with earlier descriptions.

He loves the thing that makes him evil. He tells Francis that his legs are gone, and he notices the aluminium crutch. Larry reassures that there’ll be no more dancing and no more sweet young things because of it. Francis’ lack of cold blood means he cannot complete the mission he has been so eager to complete since Larry hurt ‘his girl’. Just before Francis leaves one last compliment to him was made, one last shot at making him better then he is: ‘You would had fallen on that grenade, anyway. All of your instincts would have made you sacrifice yourself for your comrades.’ Cormier surprises readers with a sudden twist. Larry LaSalle carries out Francis’ mission without Francis’ assistance: ‘the sound of a pistol shot cracks the air.’ The impression left on the reader is that maybe Larry hated himself for what he did and feels he has nothing left now. But a moral satisfaction is not gained- Larry died a coward.

I believe Larry LaSalle was genuine with helping the community and being a role model to the kids at the Wreck Centre, but I believe he was plotting the rape on Nicole since he first met her and Francis, I think the temptation had always been high for him. For raping and hurting a teenage girl he shouldn’t be forgiven and I think anyone who does something like that should be punished no matter how many feelings of sorrow or guilt are present. I think Larry killed himself as he was trapped with himself, guilt and sadness because he lost his legs and more ‘sweet young things’ would be available to him.

I also think he saw how Francis’ eyes didn’t shine with admiration for him like they used to, he craved physical power and because he lost that he lost his will to live. I also think no matter how an incident like rape is dealt with and how a person punishes himself that it doesn’t make it any better, the fact is it still happened. There’s no going back in time. I think this book is appropriate for teenagers as it’s showing them real life situations, reality rather then a false impression of people and life. It’s bringing them out of the shadows and out of fairy tale story endings. Cormier believed we shouldn’t ‘tell it how it is’ after all.

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