Posted on October 13, 2015 | Back to Literature
REVIEWED: Peace Breaks Out by John Knowles
Here be spoilers.
If you’ve ever sat through a high school language arts class, you are probably familiar with John Knowles’ novel, A Separate Peace (ASP). It’s been promoted reading since it was first published in 1959. Less known, however, is the follow-up novel, Peace Breaks Outs (PBO), which is set three years after the events in ASP.
The book returns the reader to the Devon School, a prestigious all-boys academy located in rural New Hampshire. Pete Hallam is a disabled veteran and a former student who’s just landed a teaching position at Devon, but the school is not as he remembered. While the boys who attended the academy during the war years felt defined by that conflict, now that peace has broken out the students seem lost. Hoping to rectify this situation is Wexford, the intelligent, congenial, scheming editor of the school newspaper who’s decided that even though the war’s been won, the peace has not. In a careful, calculated way, Wexford targets a student of German descent as the school’s new “enemy” despite Pete’s efforts to broker a truce between the two. Using techniques disturbingly similar to today’s hate-mongers — distorted patriotism, discrimination cloaked as free speech, and religious hyperbole — Wexford builds suspicion and anger among an eager but unsuspecting student body.
The novel is frequently referred to as ASP’s “sequel,” although this is inaccurate despite the similarities in title, setting and timeframe. Like ASP, betrayal is still a major theme, though portrayed as a more intentional and malicious act for the advancement of personal prestige. In fact, as though to remind the reader of the book's pedigree, Knowles provides a couple of obvious references to Phineas and the treachery which killed him. Although fun for the reader, such allusions are used sparingly and it's obvious that Knowles wanted PBO to have its own identity.
So does it?
When I first read the novel in high school, it was relatively new and I didn’t like it much — perhaps seeing it as an imposter trying to cash in on the legacy of its predecessor. But my lukewarm response was unfair. Certainly Knowles intended the book to appeal to ASP’s audience; and perhaps he even hoped to reclaim some of the accolades he’d received for his introductory novel but never for any of his successive ones. Yet in some ways, PBO is the superior work. Knowles’s writing style was more considered, more mature, just as evocative despite its simplicity. His dialogue was authentic, whereas ASP’s seemed contrived at times. But perhaps the area where he really surpassed himself was in the development of his characters, particularly Wexford. As I noted in my reviews of both ASP and the short story “Phineas” on which it’s based, we know relatively little about the backgrounds of the principle characters, Gene and Phineas. Wexford however, is fully formed as a sociopathic young man who is simultaneously ambitious, conniving and naive. The decades between the two books also enabled Knowles to be more bold in his approach to topics which are virtually invisible in the teen world of ASP, in particular the students’ complex relationships with adults (teachers, parents), the school’s post-war political atmosphere, and attitudes toward sexuality.
In the end, PBO is a good novel which does exactly what Knowles wanted — it stands on its own merit. I can’t say its psychological character is as faceted as its predecessor, nor is its climatic reveal as unexpected, but the book’s an enjoyable and thoughtful return to the Devon School and well worth your time.