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Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Notes on ‘Heroes’ by Robert Cormier

 My son is reading Heroes by Robert Cormier for his English GCSE examination.

 I read the book. I thought I’d make a few notes about some of the events in the novel, the significance of which may be overlooked by the average 16-year old.

  I’m not a teacher; I haven’t studied this book, so my interpretations may not be right.  However, I have the advantage of age and know lots of random stuff relevant to this book. I’m sure I’ve missed other significant points.
I have assumed that you’ve read the book; be warned that these notes contain spoilers that will tell you how it ends. The page numbers alongside each quotation refer to the Longman edition of the book I have used. You may find some unexplained quotes; these are ones for which I will write an accompanying note if/when I get around to it.  This is a work in progress, I’m not sure that I will finish it, but I hope the notes that I have made prove useful. 


P1  Frenchtown in Monument. Frenchtown is an enclave of people of French descent. Most of the characters’ names are of French origin (Cassavant, Lasalle, LaFontaine, Richelieu, Marie La Croix, Touraine, etc..  They would probably be the children or grand-children of French-speaking French-Canadian immigrants.  Cormier’s name,  is also French.

Frenchtown is based on Cormier’s real-life home town, Leominster In Massachussets, USA.

  Leominster has an area called ‘French Hill’, where French-Canadian immigrants had settled, a park/common called Monument Square, a Spruce Street (Ch 14) and a Mechanic Street (Ch 3)..

Frenchtown is a thinly disguised version of Leominster. It’s possible that the characters and events in the novel are similarly based on real-life.

P1 ‘That’s the way he pronounced it; arse.’
 An American would usually say ‘ass’.  Dr Abram’s use of the British pronunciation is not explained, most probably he had served in hospitals in England during the war treating the casualties from the US Army Air Force and ( after D-Day) US Army ground troops.
P2 Red Sox cap. A Boston Red Sox ( US baseball team) baseball cap. Boston is the nearest large town to Frenchtown/Leominster, about 40 miles away.

P3 Three decker;  triple decker  house with 3 floors.

The French Hill area in Leominster ( and the fictitious Frenchtown) has blocks of triple decker houses. It is a distinctive type of 19th and early-20th century  housing that is common in Massachussets. A family would be housed on each floor. There is a balcony (piazza) at the front of each floor which provides an outdoor area and also shades the windows in summer. 

 The term "three-decker" originally referred to a man-of-war sailing ship with three gun decks.  The three-decker houses originated in the ports of New England, on the east coat of the USA and would have originally housed sailors and dock workers living near the ports.

P4 Damaged by the grenade  The injuries Cassavant describes would be unlikely to result from a hand grenade, although it’s not impossible Grenades usually contain a small amount of high explosive and cause injury by the fragmentation of the metal casing.  Anyone suffering such facial injuries would probably also have been blinded.
Major General John Frost (commander of 2nd Battalion, Parachute Regiment in WW2 )  in his autobiography  described a withdrawal through German lines from a position in North Africa at night, leading an injured man whose face was held on with a field dressing, having had it virtually severed by a shell fragment during an artillery bombardment.

 Artillery and mortar shells contain much more explosive than hand grenades and the shrapnel fragments generally have more energy.

P6         Later, I light a candle in St. Jude’s church....
A votive candle,  “To "light a candle for someone" indicates one's intention to say a prayer for another person, and the candle symbolizes that prayer. A donation box intended to defray candle costs generally accompanies votive candles.”
   He does not light the candle because it is dark in the church; this was an idea I found expressed on the internet, although that would be a reasonable assumption, if you didn’t happen to know much about Catholicism. 

P6 St Jude’s Church. The local parish church in Frenchtown. .
 St Jude is the patron saint of hopeless causes,  'The Saint for the Hopeless and the Despaired', There is no St. Jude's church in the real French Hill.  Cormier could have chosen a name from amongst hundreds of saints and picked St. Jude; he would have known of the association.

P6 The smell of burning wax and the fragrance of old incense, the odours of forgiveness, fill the church. I remember the days.....
  Smells have the power to bring to mind emotional memories associated with those smells.  The smells in the church bring back memories of Cassavant's childhood.

The powerful memories evoked by an odour are the subject of Rudyard Kipling’s poem Lichtenberg.
Smells are surer than sounds or sights
To make your heart-strings crack--
They start those awful voices o' nights
  That whisper, " Old man, come back! "
That must be why the big things pass
And the little things remain,
Like the smell of the wattle by Lichtenberg,
Riding in, in the rain.

P6 ........the days I served as an altar boy for Father Balthazar and the Latin responses I had trouble memorizing.
 The Roman Catholic mass was said in Latin until 1967.  A Catholic priest is usually addressed as ‘Father’.

Frenchtown is Catholic; this is important.

 P6 ... Rub Room of the Monument Comb Shop  Leominster/ Frenchtown was the centre of an industry manufacturing combs and was nicknamed ‘Comb City’. Combs had formerly been manufactured by sawing slots in strips of animal horn or, later, celluloid. They are now made cheaply from injection moulded plastics. The  Rub Room was a workshop where the final polishing processes were carried out using abrasive polishing wheels.

     You opened the door of the rub room at the comb shop and a blast like purgatory struck your face. The workers sat on stools, huddled like gnomes over the whirling wheels, holding the combs against the wheels to smooth away the rough spots. The room roared with the sound of machinery while the foul smell of the mud soiled the air. The mud was a mixture of ashes and water in which the wheels splashed so they would not overheat at the point of contact with the combs. Because the rub room was located in the cellar of the shop where there were no windows, the workers toiled in the naked glare of ceiling lights that intensified everything in the room: the noise, the smells, the heat, the cursing of the men. On the coldest day of the year, the temperature in the Rub Room was oppressive: in the summer, unbearable.

Robert Cormier ‘Fade’
P6   Nicole Renard;  another French name.
Renard means fox. In American,  WW2-era slang, fox meant a sexually attractive woman.

 P7   “Great strides have been made in cosmetic surgery, Francis. One of the few benefits of the war.”

The USA had entered WW2 2¼ years after the UK. During that time, the UK had become a centre of expertise in innovative plastic surgery usually used in treating facial burns.

See the Guinea Pig Club (patients of Archibald McIndoe) or ‘The Last Enemy’ by Richard Hilary (a Spitfire pilot severely burned during the Battle of Britain in 1940).  Dr Abrams would  probably have acquired  his knowledge of cosmetic surgery and English pronunciations in English hospitals.

P8  Silver Star  A US medal awarded for gallantry in action, the third highest US  military decoration.

Chapter 2

P10   St Thérèse of Lisieux;   Marie-Françoise-Thérèse Martin (1873 to 1897) a French nun and catholic saint.

St Therese lived only 50 years before this story is set and so, unlike most saints, there are photographs of her. Francis Cassavant is familiar with these images.

St Therese would have been especially venerated amongst the Frenchtown Catholics because she was French.

St Therese at 13 years of age, about  the same age as both Nicole Renard and Francis Cassavant when they first meet.

P10     Seventh grade                   The 7th years of school for children of 12 to 13 years of age.

P10      St Jude's parochial school.....

Parochial is an adjective which means 'relating to a Church parish.'
St. Jude's school is adjacent to St. Jude's church and is managed  by the parish.
 Some of the teachers are nuns who live in the adjacent convent. Their teachers' salaries are paid by the state and are paid to the convent.   
P11.     .....on the third floor of our house        In the UK the street level of a building is  called the ground floor. In the USA the street level is called the first floor; so the “third floor” is what a UK reader would call the ‘second floor’, or the top floor of a triple decker house.

P12         ....players from the shops                        i.e., workshops, factories

 P12.           ....the men drinking beer they had brewed in big crocks.  The sale and production of alcoholic drinks was illegal in the USA between 1920 and 1933. Home brewing became popular during the prohibition and continued afterwards. This incident occurs in about 1938, after prohibition has ended. The Frenchtown residents are poor, working people and home brewed beer is cheaper than bottled beer or buying beer in a bar.

P13         ...how selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees had brought a curse upon the team.
George Herman “Babe” Ruth (1895 to 1948), the most famous baseball player of all time.

 Babe Ruth’s contract had been sold by the owner of the Boston Red Sox to their rivals, the New York Yankees, in 1919. The reasons for the sale aren’t known, it is believed that the Red Sox owner needed money for another business venture. Babe Ruth’s sale so outraged Red Sox fans that Cassavant’s father is still regularly complaining  about it some twenty years later.
  Imagine the outrage if Manchester United had sold David Beckham to Liverpool in the early years of his professional career.


P18         ‘.....he told me about the family’s sudden departure from Frenchtown. More than that; ‘All kinds of rumors about her, Francis. She began to stay at home, didn’t come out of the house except for the five-thirty morning mass, the nuns’ mass, that nobody else in their right mind ever goes to. She was like ...’ he gestured with the cigarette, trying to find the right word.’......A hermit. Then she was gone. Her and her family. Left Frenchtown without telling anybody. ‘

  • All kinds of rumors about her, Francis.  People in Frenchtown were gossiping about Nicole Renard and her family’s sudden disappearance.
  • She was like ...’ he gestured with the cigarette, trying to find the right word.’......A hermit. Then she was gone. Her and her family. Left Frenchtown without telling anybody. ‘
    Nicole Renard’s unusual behaviour ( acting like a hermit) is not explained here, nor is the sudden disappearance of her family from the town. 

Frenchtown is a small catholic village within Monument, everyone knows everyone else, everyone knows the priest, the teachers and the doctor.

Norman Rocheleau has no direct knowledge of why Nicole Renard’s family left Frenchtown; everything he has heard is hearsay, gossip. He does not say what the “all kinds of rumours” were, it would be distressing for Francis to hear those stories.  

Nicole Renard’s unusual behaviour ( acting like a hermit) is not explained here, nor is the sudden disappearance of her family from the town.
  One possible explanation is that, if Nicole Renard had been raped by Larry LaSalle, then she may have become pregnant. This is never mentioned, but It must have been one of the possibilities considered by Francis Cassavant. It is an 'elephant in the room', throughout the book.

  Nicole’s behavior, and the sudden disappearance of her family may have been the result of her being pregnant because she, and her family, were devout Catholics.

The doctrine of the Catholic Church is that a human life begins at the instant of conception and that a termination of a pregnancy, an abortion, is a homicide, even if the conception is the result of a rape. It is the teaching of the Church that the unborn baby is a victim of the rape, as much as the mother, and its life should be protected.

You may disagree with this view, but the important point here is that Nicole is a devout Catholic, as are her parents, the priests, the nuns, her doctor and anyone else in Frenchtown to whom she may turn for help. They share this belief.  If Nicole Renard was pregnant, she would not get an abortion.

 It would have been a great disgrace for the family if an unmarried daughter had become pregnant; it is still in many cultures. The Catholic Church would often arrange accommodation for unmarried mothers, where they could have the baby away from their home towns, and then arrange to have the baby adopted or fostered.

  What might have happened  (it is never explicitly stated) is that Nicole had become  pregnant and had avoided meeting people in case they should notice. If her parents had supported her, then, when it became impossible to conceal Nicole’s pregnancy, the entire family would have left Frenchtown, without telling anyone the reasons, and moved to an area where they were not known. Nicole would be accepted as a single mother, without the associated social stigma, if she were to pass as the widow of a serviceman. Her parents may have raised the child, whilst she completed her secondary education (see Chapter 15), rather than have it adopted.

  The evidence against this  is in Chapter 16, when Francis finally meets Nicole again; she does not mention a child and Francis does not ask. She also says that she never told her parents about the rape. It is possible that she did not have a child, but this does not adequately explain the sudden departure of her family from Frenchtown. The alternative explanation is that she has a child but she does not want Francis to know that. 

Nicole had not made a complaint to the police that Larry LaSalle had raped her because she thinks it unlikely that she would be believed. Larry LaSalle is the local hero. A criminal case against LaSalle would have resulted in a trial, with all the details in the local papers.

If she had become pregnant, then it would have been her word against LaSalle’s that he was the father. DNA had not yet been discovered.

 P22         GIs in my platoon
      A GI is a member of the US Army or the US Army Air Force. The initials originally referred to all Government Issue equipment and has come to mean US service personnel.

  A platoon is a small infantry unit, usually of about 32 men, commanded by a 2nd Lieutenant assisted by a platoon sergeant. A platoon is usually organised into 4 sections, or squads, each of 8 men. The entire platoon would be deployed as a unit and is small enough that all the men would soon know one another.

P23           Two German soldiers in white uniforms.
  The German soldiers had white coveralls and helmet covers that were worn when there was snow on the ground. The Germans had previous experience of winter warfare from fighting in the USSR.

 The US Army did not have any similar equipment; the GIs' green uniforms made them  conspicuous targets against snow.


P26         Land mine

P26         Furlough          (pronounced fur-low)  Leave of absence granted to a serviceman. The word has been rarely used in the UK since WW1.

P27         St. Jude’s club   A social club owned and operated by the parish. The parish council ensures that no immoral or illegal activities (e.g., gambling) take place on the premises  and the profits from the club are used for the benefit of good causes within the parish.

P27         Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree A popular song during WW2, the most famous version being the recording by Glenn Miller and the Andrews Sisters.

P28         Big Boy, who weighed about three hundred pounds before entering the service...
21 ½ stones or 136 kilograms.
 The average man’s weight would have been less than 200 pounds. Big Boy had been overweight before he joined the armed forces.

P28         ...piece work at the shop...  A method of employment in which the worker is paid for each piece of work produced or each work process performed. The worker does not have a guaranteed weekly wage and may have no income if the employer has no work for him.

Piece work was widely used in the garment industry, with a fixed rate paid for each component piece (sleeve, cuff, collar, back, etc.,) of a garment manufactured and  another amount paid to another worker for each complete garment assembled. 

P28         GI Bill
The Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944  ‘known informally as the G.I. Bill, was a law that provided a range of benefits for returning World War II veterans (commonly referred to as G.I.s). Benefits included low-cost mortgages, low-interest loans to start a business, cash payments of tuition and living expenses to attend college, high school or vocational education, as well as one year of unemployment compensation.’

P29         I’ll be with you in Apple Blossom Time


P31      ...municipal programme

P31         ...quick gulps from hidden bottles...
            Drinking alcohol in a public place is illegal in most parts of the USA.  It is a common practice to conceal opened bottles of alcohol inside the brown paper bags that are available from liquor or grocery stores, so that the bottle cannot easily be seen by police officers. 

P32         Marx Brothers movies

P32         empty lots

P34         yardman

P34          Autumn Leaves..... dying cowboy

P35        ...born in Frenchtown...

P36       ...didn’t remind me of St. Therese

 P37        ...who died on a beach on Iwo Jima in the South Pacific....


St. Cecilia's Church, Leominster

P38  St. Jude’s Church at the corner of Third and Mechanic...
St. Cecila’s Church stands on the corner of Third Street and Mechanic Street in Leominster. The town probably now looks very different to how it looked after WW2, when it was an industrial town. 

P38 ..whether the mystery of what has happened to Nicole is hidden within those walls...
Francis suspects that Nicole might have entered a convent to become a nun.
  See also Chapter 15.

P38      The talk now is of the new Chevvies and Fords coming from the Detroit factories ....
Chevrolet  is a trade name used by General Motors in the USA; Chevrolet cars are nicknamed Chevvies.  General Motors also trade under the brand names of Vauxhall Motors (UK), Opel (Europe), Holden (Australia) and Daewoo.

   Chevrolet and Ford were the major US motor manufacturers; both are based in Detroit, Michigan.  Detrot was the centre of the US motor industry and was nicknamed Motor City or Motown.

  Manufacturing industries in the USA had been massively expanded to supply war materials. At the end of the war, production efforts had been changed from  war materials to consumer goods. There was a post-war economic boom, which, for the blue-collar working people,  meant that jobs were plentiful and wages were high. This was almost the exact opposite of the economic conditions before the war, during the years of the Great Depression.  Many manual workers were able to afford a new family car.

  Since the 1970s, motor manufacturing in Detroit has greatly declined, due to the 1973 Oil Crisis, competition from European and Asian manufacturers, multi-national manufacturers relocating factories to countries with lower labour costs and the automation of many manufacturing processes. The population of the city has decreased by 60% and Detroit has the highest unemployment rate of the big cities in the USA. The City of Detroit was declared bankrupt in 2013 and large areas of the city are a post-industrial  wasteland, with many abandoned houses and factories.

P38      Arthur and Armand and Joe are always there, fixtures in the club until they become cops or firemen....
The ‘52-20 clause’ in the GI Bill allowed provided veterans with payments of $20 per week for 52 weeks whilst they looked for work.
  Arthur, Armand and Joe are probably living off the $20 per week allowance from the 52-20 clause of the GI Bill, but none are actively seeking work or pursuing their stated ambitions of becoming cops, firemen or teachers. They are not functioning. 

P41         ...but only the Silver Star is for heroism. For gallantry.
 The Strangler meant that the Silver Star was the only medal awarded to the ‘Frenchtown Warriors’ for heroism. All the other awards detailed in his scrap book were for outstanding service.
 While there were other US awards for gallantry  (Congressional Medal of Honor, Bronze Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, etc.,) no Frenchtown resident had won such an award. 


P43         Happy Days are Here Again

P43          ‘You have a natural athletic gait.’ He spelled out the word. ‘G-a-i-t.’
  Gait is a word which may not be in the vocabulary of many 15 year olds. Larry La Salle spelled the word out to ensure Francis did not misunderstand or take the word for ‘gate’.

P47         Dancing in the Dark.

P 54     7 December 1941
     Sunday 7th December 1941 marked the beginning of the USA’s involvement  in World War 2. On that day, the Japanese Imperial Navy made a surprise attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawai. The Japanese had hoped to destroy the United State’s Pacific Fleet, which was at anchor in the harbour. The attack used bombers, torpedo bombers and escorting fighter aircraft which were launched from 6 aircraft carriers. Five midget submarines were also used, these being launched from conventional submarines 12 miles from Pearl Harbor.

  Four US battleships were sunk, 188 aircraft were destroyed and 2,403 Americans were killed.


  There had been no prior declaration of war by the Japanese; Japanese diplomats were still engaged in talks with the USA. Public opinion in the USA was outraged at the Japanese duplicity.

The attack on Pearl Harbor marked the start of a Japanese offensive throughout the Pacific. The Japanese began an invasion of the Philippine Islands on 8th December. At that time, the Philippines were occupied by the United States, although independence had been planned for 1943.  The US armed forces had numerous bases and  airstrips in the Philippines.

 On 8th December 1941, within eight hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese began attacks on the British colonies in Hong Kong and Malaya, again without any prior declaration of war against  the British. Great Britain and the USA declared war against Japan on 8th December.

  Germany and Italy had made an alliance with Japan in 1940, the Tripartite Pact, which committed the three nations to provide “one another with all political, economic and military means if one of the Contracting Powers is attacked by a Power at present not involved in the European War”.

Although they were not obliged by the wording of the agreement to declare war on the USA, (since the United States had not attacked Japan) Germany and Italy declared war on the USA on 11th December 1941.

  Until 7th December, the USA had been neutral and there had been strong opposition to US involvement in the war in Europe. Within 4 days, the USA had become involved in the wars in both the European and Pacific theatres and there was overwhelming public support for the war. 


P55... his lips turned downwards like the mask of Tragedy high above the stage at the Plymouth.

Masks were used in ancient Greek dramas as an aid to portraying the emotions the actors were expressing. The pair of Comedy and Tragedy masks are a common plaster decoration in theatres and the image is often used as a decorative motif in scripts or any  literature associated with the theatre.  


P64 London had always been linked in my mind with foggy days and evenings...

London suffered frequent winter smogs (smoke and fog) until 1962. Most domestic heating was by a coal fire in each room and the smoke emitted by thousands of fires could linger in the city for weeks in still, cold  weather conditions. Smogs do not occur now due to Clean Air Acts  (legislation allowing only the use of smokeless fuels in cities), the widespread use of gas-fired central heating and, since the 1970s, the use of natural gas from the North Sea .

P65 Eisenhower jacket

A US issued military jacket, the ‘Wool Field jacket M-1944’ also known as the Ike jacket, named after  General Dwight (Ike) D. Eisenhower. The Eisenhower jacket was a short jacket with a belted waist introduced by General Eisenhower, the commander of the Allied Forces in Europe. Eisenhower intended that the jacket could be worn as both a parade uniform and in combat, so reducing the number of different uniforms required for the huge armies recruited by the USA during the war. The design was loosely based on the British battledress blouson. 


P83         They are talking in French.... Mrs Belander and her neighbour, Mrs Agneaux are probably first generation French Canadian immigrants whose first language is French.

P84         ‘The green house, cheap paint, bought discount, fading already.....’
Building timber is cheap (compared with the EEC) in North America and Canada, due to the vast areas of forests.The cheapest method of constructing small buildings was to use a timber frame with timber weather-board cladding on the outside.

The three-decker houses in Frenchtown are of timber construction. The external weatherboarding  needs to be repainted regularly.

Comparable artisans’ terraced housing, built during the same period in the UK, were built of brick, with a slate or tile roof, since this was the cheapest construction method in the UK.

Mrs Agneaux has noticed trivial details of her neighbours’ lives, knows when the house was painted and criticises the work in gossiping with Mrs Belander.

 Very little goes unnoticed or escapes the gossips in Frenchtown. 


The cover illustration isn’t a part of Cormier’s novel, so this won’t be mentioned in an examination; this is just another  couple of bits of random information. 

The medal in the illustration is the Purple Heart, a medal awarded to US service personnel who are killed or wounded on active service.

 500,000 Purple Hearts were made in anticipation of the casualties that would result from the planned invasion of Japan in 1945, an event that was avoided by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Japan’s surrender. That stock of Purple Hearts is still being used.

The flag is a folded US Stars &Stripes. In the USA a military veteran is entitled tom a military funeral; the flag on the coffin is folded in this manner by the bearer party and handed to the Next of Kin. The flag is usually kept folded, as a memento of a lost family member.

 Few of the fatalities in WW2 were repatriated, since they did not then have jet aircraft.  The book is about the lives and deaths of returned, wounded veterans.

 The uniform seems to be a Vietnam-era (early 1960s) camouflage uniform. SFAIK the only camouflage uniforms used in WW2 were those issued to the German army (the Wehrmacht), the Waffen SS and the Denison smock issued to British & Commonwealth airborne forces. The photographer probably didn’t know or care much about WW2 uniforms.

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