A Separate Peace by John Knowles
Scribner trade paperback edition, 2003
(first published 1959)
At its heart, this is a story of friendship, and how much tension the cord of friendship can take before it snaps. During the summer of 1942, Gene and Phineas (Finny) are roommates at a New Hampshire boarding school. You immediately get the sense of how ever-present Word War II was in the lives of every American, but especially teenage boys who pretty much had only one choice after graduation: to enlist. Even part of their senior year curriculum included military preparedness, which was mostly just hard labor in the name of supporting the war efforts.
The friendship between Gene (the narrator) and Finny is strong from the start. Gene obviously idolized Finny's natural athletic abilities, his carefree positive attitude, his charismatic charm. The boy could talk his way out of anything, which makes for some humorous scenes throughout the book. During the summer before their senior year, even though Gene battles a short bout of jealousy over Finny, it seems the lives of these two young men will be nothing but pleasant no matter what they encounter in the future.
Then there's an incident in the tree...
This is an old book--a bestseller, a classic--so I'm sure many people know why this tree is so important. But it seemed quite innocent at first mention. There are rungs built into its trunk and the main limbs hang over a deep river. The senior boys use this tree as a way of preparing for the military. They climb it, venture out on the branch, then jump into the river.
For most of the summer, it is, even though these boys are technically not seniors yet and therefore shouldn't be doing any tree jumps. Then, in a split second of--of who knows what?--Gene gently bounces the limb while he and Finny are about to do a double jump (how fun! a double jump!), Finny loses his balance (which neither of them expected because he's so freaking athletic), and he falls.
Onto the ground, not in the river. The bone in one of his legs shatters.
This is the beginning of the end for Finny and for Gene. Finny doesn't know that Gene bounced the limb--he has a feeling, but would never attribute such an act to his best friend. Guilt ensues, and mayhem follows, all the while there's this war going on...
I can't say anymore of what happens in case you haven't read it yet. The way this is written has a way of sucking you in like WWII is being fought right outside your window, right now, today, and it's something you have to worry about. It feels that real.
My favorite example of this, which is too long to quote in its entirety, is found on pages 40-42, starting with this paragraph "Everyone has a moment in his history which belongs particularly to him," and ending with this paragraph "It is this special America, a very untypical one I guess, an unfamiliar transitional blur in the memories of most people, which is the real America for me."
And the characterization of not only Gene and Finny, but also the other boys at the school--because all are affected by this war and this tree incident--is outstanding. This is one of those books that makes you laugh out loud on one page and want to burst into tears at the very next. And then all over again. It is magnificent storytelling.