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Barron's Booknotes-A Separate Peace by John Knowles

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CHAPTER 11

Have you detected an interesting paradox about Gene? We don't know what he looks like, though we imagine an open, receptive face, eyes set wide apart, mouth in thin smile, but obviously there's something about him that people trust, that encourages them to tell him things and confide in him. And yet he doesn't trust himself at all well. He has a knack for getting to the heart of situations that is countered by an equally strong inclination to pull away, or protect himself.

And so Gene heads back to the sanctuary of Devon in search of Phineas, the one human being who remains exempt from this horrible, ugly war and who understands only the noble struggle on the field of sport, never that on the field of battle.

Gene returns to find a snowball fight in progress, a schoolboy imitation of the real war Gene now knows more about than he cares to. In this winter of 1943 his fantasy of Devon as an "untouched grove" is wearing thin. Gene cannot really keep the dream alive much longer in view of what he has just learned from Leper. Finny is the last major holdout, but he too is losing momentum, even though his wound has healed and he now walks with only the slightest limp.



Gene puts off the obligation to report on Leper's condition. He does not want to be the bearer of bad tidings. However, as the only peer witness so far to the boy's deterioration, he has no choice but to respond openly when Brinker and Finny draw him out that evening. "My resentment against having to mislead people seemed to be growing stronger every day," Gene confesses to us as he falters in guarding the story of his Vermont visit and then reveals the truth.

Finny and Brinker take the news hard. It's an undeniable confirmation of the war, embodied in someone they know well. It stares them in the face and will not go away. Finny, clutching at straws, tries to shrug off Leper's being absent without leave as a justifiable response to the army; Brinker tries to tough it out, talking of "guys like that," hoping against hope it won't happen to him. (Remember who was the first among their crowd to leap at the chance to enlist.)

Jumping to his crippled friend's side when Brinker reminds Gene that Finny would not be eligible for the army because of his busted leg, Gene takes a half-hearted stab at reviving the old story about "this fake war," knowing more deeply than ever how genuine it is.

Finny responds with irony, "Sure. There isn't any war," as if he believes the very opposite. Leper has proven to them that there is a war and that it can kill the mind and spirit as easily as it can the body. So much for fantasies. The eagerness to enlist that had rippled through the Devon ranks is replaced by a go-slow policy. Every boy is now looking for the branch of the military that promises the least peril. Representatives of the armed services come to campus, make presentations, and leave. "The thing to be was careful and self-preserving," Gene says.

Brinker threatens Gene one morning after chapel. He's still jealous, and he wants to drive a wedge between the devoted roommates. Living across the hall, fighting to make a name for himself in class, and joining numerous extracurricular activities, Brinker devotes every waking moment to establishing himself as a leader. Finny, who doesn't even try, has no agenda or plan of campaign; merely by assembling the boys at the foot of the stairwell and making them sing hymns, or by cracking outrageous jokes, Finny readily attracts the loyalty and devotion of his peers.

Brinker resents both Finny's charmed life and Gene's role as Finny's protector. Is that why he threatens Gene so ominously with a kind of blackmail, obliquely referring to the summertime accident and Gene's part in it? Brinker hopes that by instilling fear in Gene he can somehow get closer to the magically attractive Finny, discover the secret of his success, and then gain by it.

Brinker's threats do not long deter Gene from returning to Finny's side. The reciprocal efforts continue; he coaches Finny in Latin, "since he had to pass Latin at last this year or fail to graduate." Caesar, like war, is a concept that Finny has had trouble believing in. He's the kind of person for whom secondhand information is not good enough; he must experience life in the raw. Above all, he tells Gene, approaching him in order to be closer when he pronounces it, "I've got to believe you, at least. I know you better than everybody."

Finny has seen Leper on campus, and he decides to share this dangerous news with Gene. For a few golden moments in their sunny room, the two boys enjoy shared laughter and fond memories. Their affection for each other is untainted, pure as youth, long awaited and welcome. How close the two boys have become since the beginning of the new school year; how much more natural and giving their friendship seems now.

When "Brinker and three cohorts" come to abduct Finny and Gene that night, the two suspect nothing. And why should they? After all, it's spring of senior year, a time of pranks and light-headedness. They sneak over to the First Building-deserted, naturally, after ten at night-and Gene notes the symbolically significant inscription above the door, "Here Boys Come to Be Made Men." Some sort of tribunal has been planned, and with sinister intent.

NOTE: We recall Brinker's warning and wonder if the time of trial has come, time for Brinker to take the law into his own hands and push to the heart of the mystery that has been torturing him since summer. But rather than pursue the truth alone, he enlists the help of his classmates. In numbers there is strength. If Brinker cannot combat Gene one-to-one, he'll call on some nameless, faceless boys to dress in black gowns and sit on the stage in the Assembly Room as if they were judges.

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Barron's Booknotes-A Separate Peace by John Knowles
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