Childhood is a time of immense hopes and insecurities, a period of great vulnerability in which the acceptance of both peers and adults takes on an almost seismic importance. Few knew this better than novelist Robert Cormier, who, beginning with his 1975 book “The Chocolate War,” brought a more psychologically nuanced sensibility, as well as a decidedly darker edge, to the young adult genre. In the process, he became a key figure in the genre’s transition from primarily a marketing tool to a respected literary genre.
Last quarter, I wrote about his next-to-last book, “Tenderness.” At the time, it was a tough call between writing about that or his final book, “The Rag and Bone Shop.” When trying to think of a suspenseful, powerful and poignant book to write about this week, the call wasn’t tough at all.
The plot of “The Rag and Bone Shop” is straightforward and economical. A 7-year-old girl has been murdered and the last known person to see her alive is a 12-year-old boy named Jason. Of course, it’s possible that Jason was the last person to see her alive, period. Possible, but not probable. He needs to be questioned, though, and so the ambitious Trent enters the picture. Trent is a highly skilled police interrogator famous for his ability to extract confessions from the guilty – and, perhaps, from the not-guilty. And so, when Trent gets Jason alone in a windowless interrogation room, a search for the truth gets underway as well as a contest of wills and, finally, a crisis of conscience.
A slim 154 pages, “The Rag and Bone Shop” is forceful, tense and taut. Cormier lets us in on Trent’s every psychological trick and calculated strategy to gradually wear down his subject’s defenses. Page by page, we begin to identify more and more with young Jason, sitting in a small and stuffy room being questioned by a smooth and charismatic figure of authority who may or may not have our best interest at heart. Don’t be surprised if, as you’re reading Trent’s silky yet relentless questioning of Jason, your mouth begins to feel a little dry and your palms a little sweaty.
More than most writers, Cormier knew the psychological power of authority figures over children and adolescents. Sometimes the stories they tell us about ourselves, after all, are the stories we begin to tell ourselves about ourselves. This can, of course, have positive consequences. It can also have devastating consequences, as the book’s final twist makes ruthlessly clear. Whether that twist is entirely necessary is up for debate, but that it ends the book on a particularly chilling note is unquestionable.
The claustrophobic intensity and psychological insight Cormier brings to the page would be a remarkable achievement for any writer, but in this case it’s also a fitting swan song for a man whose books so expertly plumbed the vulnerable (and sometimes troubled) psyches of the young.
Quentin Dunne is a psychology graduate student and Mustang Daily columnist.