Reading New England: A Separate Peace

Posted January 22, 2016 by Lory in reviews / 21 Comments

John Knowles, A Separate Peace (1959)

SeparatePeaceLike many other adolescents, I was assigned A Separate Peace to read when I was in my early teens. Adults seem to think that a novel about teenagers in a school must necessarily be good for teenagers to read in school. For me, however, the plan backfired — I retained almost no impression of the book other than that I found reading it an unpleasant experience, and certainly was left with no lasting sense of lessons learned. I might never have picked it up again, except that I knew it had a New Hampshire setting (based on Phillips Exeter Academy) and was curious to revisit it as part of my Reading New England Challenge.

I’m glad I did, as I found subtlety and depth that completely passed me by thirty years ago. In my own defense, I do think that a certain degree of maturity and life experience are helpful for appreciating this story of boys in their last precarious year of peace before they’re sucked into the maw of World War II. Some readers may have that maturity at thirteen, but I did not. I couldn’t relate to Gene or Phineas or their convoluted relationship or their conflicted feelings over the war. It was all too remote from my own experience, and I couldn’t or wouldn’t bridge that gap.

This time, though I didn’t find either Gene or Phineas very congenial company — the latter in particular annoyed me terribly, at least at first — I could sympathize more with their plight and see how it reflects basic human struggles. We all hurt one another in ways large and small; a tiny misunderstanding can be as devastating in our personal lives as a global war. I could also appreciate the elegaic beauty of the writing, and appreciate the perspective it gave me on both a particular time in history and a special place.

Phillips Exeter Academy, original of the Devon School. Source: Wikimedia
Phillips Exeter Academy, original of the Devon School. Source: Wikimedia

It’s notable that we gain almost no insight into the family lives or backgrounds of the boys; it’s as if they have sprung into being only for these few years that they attended the Devon School. This may be meant as symptomatic of the almost pathological dissociation caused by the impending war, but for me it still gave the reading experience a curiously remote quality. I do wonder what kind of adolescent will find something to connect or relate to in this book; to me it seems much more a book for adults, who have a certain amount of distance from the age portrayed already.

I’m counting this book for the Banned or Censored category of the Back to the Classics Challenge, since it has been challenged in several different school districts, mostly for strong language, but once as a “filthy, trashy sex novel.” I find this baffling — did the challengers read the same book I did? I noticed almost no swear words (the letter F appears once with some dashes after it) and zero sex. In fact, there is a downright monastic lack of sex considering this is a book about seventeen-year-old males. Some readers have detected homoerotic undercurrents to the text but the author insists he did not put them there, and I agree that they are of the sort one could read into almost anything.

Be that as it may, there are many reasons to read A Separate Peace: for its language, its history, its insights, its achingly sad story of youth passing too soon. If, like me, you’ve read it once and rejected it as not for you, I hope you might also give it another chance.

Reading New England: A Separate PeaceA Separate Peace by John Knowles
Published by Scribner in 2003 (originally 1959)
Format: Paperback from Library

 

Reading New England Challenge: New Hampshire
Back to the Classics Challenge: Banned or Challenged Classic
Classics Club List #20

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21 responses to “Reading New England: A Separate Peace

  1. I agree with you. I think I read this in high school, too, and my impression of what it was about is so vague that your description doesn’t even remind me of it, except it was about two boys in prep school. I think often teachers pick books they think teens will relate to that are much too subtle and difficult for them.

    • The best books have many layers, so we can appreciate different parts of them as we grow older. For me this one just didn’t offer me a good entry point as a teenager, so I wasn’t motivated to try to understand it. For other readers the situation might be completely different, as with Krysta’s comment below.

      • Kay

        True. I think at different times of our lives, we read for different things. When we’re younger, it’s all about plot. Then we start thinking about character. Some of us stay that way, and others go on to consider themes, imagery, and so on. I often have a completely different reaction to reading a book now than I had years ago.

  2. This used to be one of my favorite books, though I don’t remember it distinctly. I did read it when younger and while many of the subtleties probably went over my head, I enjoyed the story about the complexities of friendship. I had no idea it had been banned, though–and those reasons make no sense to me!

    • It’s always so interesting to observe the alchemical relationship between reader and book. It really is a different book for different readers — and especially for the ones who want to ban it, who seem to have read something else entirely.

  3. I haven’t read this book since high school, but I actually kind of liked it. I don’t remember it too well, just that it’s sad. But you make me want to read it again…see how I feel about it now. 🙂

  4. I was never assigned this book in school. It looks to be very well worth the read.

    I really relate to not appreciating certain books when I was younger that I now get a lot out of.

    • There are so many books I think I was too young to read when assigned them in school. (Which says something about me, not necessarily the wisdom of assigning them.) I’m glad I’m now taking the time to revisit some of them.

  5. Deb

    Like you, I read this in school because I had to, and never understood the appeal. I’m glad that you found it a better read as an adult.

    • That seems to be the case more often than not when I reread books from school. This year I want to tackle some more — like Don Quixote, which will be quite a commitment.

  6. I read this in school too! I liked it reasonably well, I think — I must have liked it well enough, as I kept my copy, but I’ve never been moved to reread it. It seems like it’s maybe falling out of fashion these days, though? I think it’s one of those books that’s being taken out of HS syllabuses to make room for more books by ladies or authors of color or folks from other countries. Which seems fine! (But I should reread it though.)

    • There are so many more options now for reading with adolescents that I could understand this one being chosen less often, though it’s now regarded as a classic.

  7. Lory, I really liked your insights. I, too, noticed a lack of family information as if the boys existed only at the school.

    I recently read the book for the first time, managing to miss it as a teenager. I enjoyed it overall and still think it has a place on school reading lists for the observation that it could be a book about bullying. While Phineas wasn’t violent, he was dealing with some kind of personal demons. He was a great manipulator of Gene and the other boys, getting them to participate in his selfish whims of the moment, some that ended in tragedy.

    • Good point about the bullying and manipulative behavior. I do think that’s what made it so hard for me to warm to Finny and Gene in the beginning — one for what he did and the other for allowing it.

  8. We read this book in sixth grade, and I LOVED it. I think I was smitten with Phineas, and it was all so gloriously sad. I remember realizing partway through that it was going to be sad, so I took it home to read ahead and have a good cry in private so I wouldn’t embarrass myself when we got to that part in class.

    Yes, I was a little weird.

    I then went on to read other John Knowles, including the sequel to Separate Peace, and for several years claimed another of his works, Vein of Riches, as my favorite book. It’s about labor strikes in coal mines in 1920s Virginia, and a beautiful coal widow that the mine owner “keeps” and that his idealist son falls in love with.

    Seriously weird kid, me.

    • Hooray for weird kids! How awful it would be if everyone liked the same things. I really don’t know why I couldn’t relate to this book when there were others equally far from my experience that I loved (e.g. The Outsiders). Reading preferences are hard to pin down sometimes.
      I definitely appreciated Knowles’s writing this time around, and I’d be interested in checking out Vein of Riches, as well as the sequel to this one.

  9. I reread A Separate Peace recently too and while I did like it as a teen, I liked it more as an adult. Interestingly, I remembered the first half of the book vividly but almost nothing from the second half.

    I’m usually surprised to hear that I book I like has been banned, and I’m with you, why this book was banned completely escapes me!

    I like the idea of Reading New England–so many avenues to go down. I’ll be interested in reading some of the other reviews.