NOTE TO TEACHERS
Robert Cormier's books look unflinchingly at tyranny and the abuse of power, at treachery and betrayal, at guilt and forgiveness, love and hate, and the corruption of innocence. His books, though, are most of all good stories, full of suspense and surprises and dramatic action as his characters struggle--sometimes unsuccessfully--to find an appropriate response to the existence of evil.
The discussion topics in this guide are meant to help in your exploration of Robert Cormier's provocative novel Heroes by providing insights into theme and character, clarifying points in the plot, and analyzing the larger psychological, literary, and sociological aspects of the novel. The questions are designed to appeal to a variety of reading levels and tastes. You may want to try them all, or you may want to focus on those that are most interesting and appropriate for your group.
ABOUT THIS BOOK
In this lean and powerful novel, Robert Cormier quietly, remorselessly, probes the nature of heroism as it is reflected through the remains of a young life forever shattered by a terrible act.
Francis Joseph Cassavant is 18. He has just returned home from World War II, and he has no face. He does have a gun and a mission: to murder his childhood hero. Francis's ghastly disfigurement gives him the anonymity he needs for his burning "mission": to avenge the rape of his high school girlfriend by killing her seducer, Larry LaSalle, the youth leader whose movie-star good looks and easy charisma had made him a hero to the kids of Frenchtown.
But behind this romantic obsession, Francis is driven by his own guilt for doing nothing to stop the rape, a guilt which has driven him to seek instant death in the war by throwing himself on a grenade--only to survive as a faceless and unwilling hero.
ABOUT THIS AUTHOR
Robert Cormier (pronounced kor-MEER) has always lived in Leominster, Massachusetts, a small city in the north-central part of the state. He and his wife, Connie, also from Leominster, still live in the house where they raised their three daughters and one son--all adults now--and they see no reason to leave. "There are lots of untold stories right here on Main Street," Cormier says.
A newspaper reporter and columnist for 30 years (working for the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, and the Fitchburg Sentinel), Cormier is sometimes inspired by news stories. What makes his works unique is his ability to make evil behavior understandable, though, of course, still evil. "I'm very much interested in intimidation," he told an interviewer from School Library Journal. "And the way people manipulate other people. And the obvious abuse of authority." All of these themes are evident in his young-adult classic and best-known book, The Chocolate War. A 15-year-old fan of his said, "You always write from inside the person."
Suggested Topics for Discussion
1. The title of this novel could be meant ironically. Irony is a literary expression or style marked by a deliberate contrast between apparent and intended meaning. In other words, this may be a book about "heroes" who are not true heroes. How many examples of such non-heroes do you see in the book?
2. Cormier uses an intriguing style of gradual revelation to tell his story, revealing who, what, and where by giving hints and clues that raise questions in our minds and build up the whole picture. The first chapter is the exposition, the part of the book that gives everything we need to know for the story to move forward. Look for phrases that first suggest the time and place, and that Francis has been in the army, has been wounded in a war, has been known but is now in hiding, has loved Nicole, and has come back for a dark purpose.
3. Cormier uses the same gradual and indirect revelation to introduce us to Francis's character. What clues do you find in the first chapter that show his kindness toward other people, his gentleness, his love of romance, his forgiving nature, his attitude toward his deformity, his tendency to obsession and singleness of purpose?
4. The book begins with Francis's shocking statement that he "has no face." In the context of the whole story, what are other metaphorical expressions about "face" that would be relevant here? For instance, what is the broader meaning of "to lose face," to be "faceless," to "face up" to something or to "face down" somebody? How do these apply to Francis?
5. Dr. Abrams jokes about Francis's disfigurement. Is this a good thing? Do you think it is kindly meant? Or deliberately cruel? How does Francis feel about it? When he is walking on the street, he notices that people glance at him in surprise and turn away quickly. How do you react when you see a disabled or disfigured person? How do you think they would like you to react?
6. In contrast to his usual subtlety, Cormier lets Francis describe with shocking directness and detail what it feels like to have no face. What do you imagine he looks like? Since Cormier was a great movie fan in his youth, the image of Francis could relate to horror film sources, perhaps the bandage-swathed Claude Raines in The Invisible Man. Look up a picture of the actor in makeup and compare with your own mental picture of Francis.
7. One of the first things Francis does in Frenchtown is to go to St. Jude's to pray. What do you think he means when he refers to the fragrance of old incense as "the odors of forgiveness"? Why does he pray for the man he is going to kill--and then feel shame for that prayer? Why doesn't he ask God to forgive his guilt for the rape? What else would he lose if he gave up that guilt?
8. What is your definition of a hero? Francis feels that he is "a fake" because he wanted to die but was "too much of a coward to kill myself." When he threw himself on the grenade it was not to save his comrades but to end his own life. Is a heroic act still heroic even if it's done for the wrong reasons?
9. The drunken Arthur Rivier says, "We weren't heroes. We were only there," and Francis remembers that Eddie Richards in the midst of the battle had cried out, "What are we doing here anyway?" Why do heroes so seldom feel heroic to themselves? At the end of the book, who does Francis say are the real heroes and why? Do you agree?
10. As Francis tries to fall asleep, he recites "the names of the guys in his platoon." Men in war often bond closely with the members of their group as they face danger together. Have you ever felt such an emotional link to other people as you faced something difficult together--on a sports team, for instance, or in the cast of a play? Describe how it felt.
11. "Everyone wanted to go to war in those days to defeat the Japs and the Germans," remembers Francis. We know this was not Francis's real motivation for joining the army. Do you suppose it was the real reason for most people, or are there other personal factors that might have been behind their decisions? Are there any good reasons to justify war? What actions by an enemy would make you willing to fight? (For a teacher's guide on The Images of War, click here.)
12. Francis says about the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, "We had discovered in one moment on a Sunday afternoon that the world was not a safe place anymore." What was the significance of that event for America? What happened as a result? Ask your grandparents or another older person what they remember of their feelings on that day and share it with the group.
13. A pun on "The Wreck Center" is that it is the center of the wreck of the lives of the three main characters. How is it appropriate for the story that this building has been tainted by a rejected lover's revenge shooting? What details dramatize its reputation as "a bad-luck place," and how does Cormier foreshadow what is to happen there?
14. Concealed and revealed identity is a theme in many of Cormier's books. In Heroes, Francis is very anxious to conceal his identity from his former friends and neighbors. Why? What does he tell us about his early life that shows that he has always had a tendency to hide? In what crucial episode does this prove to be the flaw in his character that leads to all his troubles?
15. Another case of concealed identity is the mystery surrounding the glamorous Larry LaSalle. Why do you think he has left show business and come back to a small town like Monument? What hints does Cormier give us that there is something wrong behind the movie-star facade?
16. Even at gunpoint Larry is unrepentant when Francis accuses him of the rape. He defends himself with the memory of his kindness to the kids at the Wreck Center, and asks, "Does that one sin of mine wipe away the good things?" Francis counters, "That's a question you should ask Nicole." What do you think she would answer? What would you answer?
17. Forgiveness is a major theme in this and in many of Cormier's novels. Trace how each of the three main characters forgive and are forgiven, and how they are affected when forgiveness is withheld and when it is finally granted. Which is harder--to forgive someone else or yourself?
18. Typically a novel is built around conflict, the suspense-creating tension that rises to a peak of excitement and is resolved at the climax of the story: Francis's mission to kill Larry; and his need to be freed from his own guilt about the rape. What is the climactic scene for each of these conflicts: How does Larry cheat Francis of his victory? How does Nicole heal him? Why is he not more disturbed when she lets him know she doesn't want to see him again?
19. Before he confronts Larry, Francis begins to "close doors to the future" by burning the addresses of Dr. Abrams and Enrico. Why does he do this, and what does he mean when he says "I have my own method of disposal"? In the end, after he has met with Nicole, what does he think about that lets us know he has reopened those doors to the future? Do you think Cormier has left a tiny bit of uncertainty about this? What words support your answer?
Teaching Ideas prepared by Patty Campbell, author of Presenting Robert Cormier and 1989 winner of the American Library Association's Grolier Award for distinguished service to young adults and libraries.
* "Cormier is once again on top of his game. . . . His story will hold fans from first page to last."
--Starred, Publishers Weekly
* "Once again, Cormier has written a suspenseful novel that addresses serious questions of concern to most young adults."-- VOYA
"Powerful and thought-provoking."-- School Library Journal
"Emulating the sparse, sturdy prose of Francis' literary idol, Ernest Hemingway, Cormier sketches the dark underbelly of a brief historic time in shadows that will follow the readers long after the story has ended."-- Booklist
"The pacing is meticulous, the mood is tense, and the climactic confrontation between Francis and Larry is charged with ethical ambiguity. . . .Young adults struggling with their own moral choices may be sparked to discussion by the novel's ambivalent conclusion."-- The Bulletin
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