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Barron's Booknotes-A Separate Peace by John Knowles

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The return to school in the fall is always an occasion of mixed emotions. There's the promise of new ideas to be learned and new friendships to be made; at the same time, there's the threat of new intellectual pressures and new teachers who may have higher or different expectations of us. And for seniors there's a question mark; where do I go from here?

For the senior boys of Devon School in the 1942-1943 academic year, the question of military service looms large. Hurried into manhood by the war, most of them will have to defer their university plans until after they have contributed in some way to the war effort.

Returning to school without having Finny around is especially painful for Gene, We've learned enough about the depth of their connectedness to be able to feel Gene's estrangement from his surroundings, even as the masters strive to maintain continuity and tradition by sitting in their customary pews and singing the same hymns in chapel on opening day. Gene finds something oddly appropriate about singing Dear Lord and Father of Mankind Forgive Our Foolish Ways, as if it had been planned expressly for him. No matter how determinedly we try to hold on to these precious days, summer gives way to fall, 16 gives way to 17 and 18, junior year gives way to senior year, childhood gives way to adulthood. And in wartime these phases have a way of becoming accelerated beyond our control. For Gene this bittersweet time is marked by Finny's absence; the gap a leader has left cannot be filled easily.

NOTE: Here the author introduces us in greater detail to some other boys who, while Finny was around, seemed little more than cardboard figures in the background of Finny and Gene's struggles. Now that the picture has been dramatically changed, we turn our attention to this supporting cast of characters. New life is breathed into Leper Lepellier and Brinker Hadley (who rooms across the hall from where Gene now lives alone), and we meet Quackenbush, manager of the crew team.

Even as we come to know the other boys in this second phase of the story, the memory of Finny remains vivid. As Gene makes his way to the Crew House to report for his first day of duty as assistant senior crew manager, he pauses by the river to recall the sight, in happier times, of "Phineas in exaltation, balancing on one foot on the prow of a canoe like a river god, his raised arms invoking the air to support him, face transfigured, body a complex set of balances and compensations." His memories of Finny do not torture Gene the way the sight of Finny himself, swathed in bandages, had done.

Why has Gene decided not to go out for a sport but to sign on as an assistant manager? Is this his way of doing penance and not violating Finny's sacred position as the ultimate athlete?

Quackenbush (no one uses his first name, which is Cliff), the senior crew manager, has already formed a judgment of Gene based on Gene's taking the assistant manager job: clearly the boy's self-image has suffered a shock. But, Gene tells us, "I knew his flat black eyes would never detect my trouble."

What sort of trouble do you suppose this is that cannot be seen by the naked eye?

And how sincerely do you think Gene wants to escape the atmosphere of competition at Devon? Is it ever possible to avoid competition in school? Gene would prefer to suffer his guilt in silence, to perform the menial tasks of fetching towels and water buckets, gathering oars, helping to bring the lightweight shells onto the shore, without anyone bothering him.

Quackenbush, however, will not tolerate such independence. He goads and teases Gene, clearly picking a fight. We all know people who can't get through the day without conflict of some kind, and Quackenbush is one of those types. He presents yet another test for Gene, and it is in meeting rather than avoiding tests that one grows and develops as an individual. John Knowles reminds us of this over and over again in A Separate Peace.

The Quackenbushes of this world are at the opposite end of the spectrum from the Finnys. In responding to Quackenbush's taunts-"Go to hell Forrester. Who the hell are you anyway" and "Listen, you maimed son-of-a-bitch"- Gene makes a quick statement about where he stands. He lashes out in anger and, he realizes soon after the fight, in defense of Finny. Imagining Finny's presence, his indomitable spirit and his faultlessly positive attitude, gives Gene the courage to fight back. Gene's action is the "first skirmish of a long campaign," the first step toward a rebuilt sense of self-confidence. Can it be that Finny is an even truer friend when he's not around, when Gene can draw on an idea of him for inspiration without becoming confused by Finny's larger-than-life example in the flesh?

Finny is very much on Gene's mind as he straggles damply back to the main campus and runs into Mr. Ludsbury, the teacher in charge of his dormitory. Mr. Ludsbury reprimands Gene for his sloppy appearance and lays down the law about gambling at night-which makes Gene feel even more guilty. He accuses Gene, who as a senior should know better, of "taking advantage" of the relaxed summertime rules. Gene just stands there, reflecting on what might have happened last summer if he had "truly taken advantage of the situation," that is, if he had understood the sincerity of Finny's friendship and not done what he did.

A long-distance telephone call awaits Gene in Mr. Ludsbury's study-not bad news from home, as Gene fears, but Finny's cheerful voice welcoming him to the start of a new school year. Evidently his invalid friend has been thinking of him, too. As far as Finny is concerned, he and Gene are still roommates, and he is relieved to hear that his side of the room remains unoccupied and ready for his eventual return to Devon-a sign there's still a place for him in Gene's heart as well.

"God you were crazy when you were here," Finny tells Gene. Has he decided once and for all that the incident at the tree must have been an accident? Gene's resolve is shaken. He would like to believe he did not act intentionally.

Finny is shocked and dumbfounded to learn that his friend has signed up as assistant crew manager. Gene doesn't tell Finny that he interprets Dr. Stanpole's pronouncement that "sports are finished" for Finny as meaning there will be no more sports for him as well. In this way he denies himself the pleasure of sports and apologizes for what has happened to Finny. But Finny does not accept Gene's position: "If I can't play sports, you're going to play them for me." At that moment it dawns on Gene that the two of them are tied together inextricably. He can no longer distinguish who is Finny and who is Gene. Not even a fall from the tree can tear them apart.

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Barron's Booknotes-A Separate Peace by John Knowles

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