John Knowles’ novel A Separate Peace is one of those books I have always heard of and wanted to read, one that I even have had a copy of for years, but, sadly, it would always find its way to the bottom of my to-be-read pile. There just always seemed to be other books that found their way ahead of A Separate Peace on my priority list. But, that all changed this summer when I finally carved out the time to give this 1959 tale the dedication it deserved. And I am so glad I did. A bildungsroman novel set in the early years of World War II, the story follows Gene and Phineas, roommates at the Devon School, a boys preparatory school in New England. Completely opposite, Gene is the more reserved, serious type, while Phineas is the outspoken leader who likes to shake things up. While the boys are at school, a tragic event occurs which drastically changes the rest of their time at Devon not to mention the rest of their lives.
At first when I began the story, I felt sorry for Gene since it seemed like Phineas was peer pressuring him to do things he didn’t want to do, such as jump off a tree branch into a river on the school property. However, as the story progressed, Gene seemed to be losing his sanity, fabricating or exaggerating Finny’s motives which ultimately led to a turning point in their lives they can not recover from. That was one of the surprising themes I found in the story: failing sanity. This is evident through Gene’s erratic inner dialogue that the reader is privy to since Gene is our first person narrator. But, Knowles also showcases Gene’s descent into madness through other characters, as well, namely a character named Leper whom everyone thought was unhinged, but who really acted as a mirror for Gene, reflecting his own inner demons. Leper may have seemed more detached from reality on the outside, but he truthfully tells Gene that he is “a savage underneath” even though Gene wants adults and others to think that he is “a good boy underneath.” Like I said, knowing a little of what this book was about going into the reading, I was not expecting a plotline focused on the mental state of one of the characters, but it turned out to be one of the more gripping aspects of the novel.
For the story as a whole, I enjoyed the interesting take on a World War II novel in which the focus was on teenage boys the year just before they could be drafted and how that waiting period allowed for a “separate peace” from the rest of the world. Most WWII books and movies focus on the battles, and rightly so, but this novel felt like everyone was holding their breath, waiting until the day they would get their draft notice, boys who were on the cusp of becoming men. When Gene thought about the faculty at Devon and how they looked at him and his classmates, 16 year olds unable to join the war yet, he reflected, “We were careless and wild, and I supposed we could be thought of as a sign of the life the war was being fought to preserve.”
Like I said, this book has been on my list for a while, and I am so glad I finally checked this classic off. It was beautiful and heartbreaking. So many aspects of it reminded me of my favorite movie, Dead Poets Society: the prep school for boys in a New England setting, one reserved roommate and one outgoing roommate, and tragedy. Although this was a book about World War II, it is even more so a book about the confusing and terrifying emotions we feel as children and where those emotions can lead. When thinking about his peers and himself at school before they were to join the draft, Gene mused, “We reminded them of what peace was like, of lives which were not bound up with destruction.” Sadly enough, people don’t always need a war to find destruction. We can be pretty good at bringing terrible ends upon ourselves, which the characters in this novel experience firsthand.