Book Review: A Separate Peace by John Knowles


While ostensibly about teen boys I’m not sure that this book is targeted at that audience.

I had picked it up due to its frequent listing on books for teen boys when looking at works for my own son to read. John Knowles used his own experiences at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, NH (one of the most prestegious schools in the nature acting as a feeder to the Ivy League) to drawn upon as well as his time in the US Air Force at the end of WWII.

Core themes here include numerous ones you would (in my opinion) want any son to learn in his youth—loyalty, strength, kindness, independence, athleticism, competitive nature, etc. A young man’s time at such an academy should shape what he is for the future—here we see it also forever impact their lives for both good and bad.

Its main characters, Gene and Phineas, share a friendship like many young men do when put in such close circumstances…they both love each other (and I do mean "love”) as well as have, at least from Gene’s perspective, a decided jealousy of the other for what Phineas can do that Gene can’t. Its this desire to outmatch his best friend’s efforts that cause the cascading set of events resulting in bitter self examination for one of them.

Many have pointed to a homosexual element to A Separate Peace…and it is there in some of the teens interactions and language—however—the author has strongly disagreed that he ever had any intent to include any homosexual interactions between any of the characters. If he says so, I would tend to agree…so what do I attribute it to? I see only what I have come to view as the “homosensual” (a term a college professor of mine coined) nature of these schools. In any situation where young men are thrown together for extended and confined periods of time there is bound to be this sort of contact and commentary between one another. Disagree??

Please go see Winston Churchill, George Leigh Mallory, and any number of other male histories of those brought up through the English Academy system of education in the 1800 and 1900’s of which there is buckets of documentation. This contact between males may or may not end up sexual nature but either way it was understood by those of the time that these sort of relationships would develop in such environments and would naturally dissolve upon their transition to the “real” world. With Knowles having been brought up through such a system it is natural that he would describe actions and events that may appear to modern eyes to be homosexual in nature but in reality are “merely” the type of contact that often develops between young men in such situations having little to do with true “sexual” attraction a we think of it in the male-female “norm”.

Regardless, the book doesn’t focus on this issue, I just wanted to mention it. The novel itself is deeply affecting and could be seen as both an anti-war novel as well as a “coming of age” tale. In both regards it succeeds and is well worth anyone’s time in reading, particularly any man’s time as there are numerous items and emotions that will readily appear familiar to those found in both one’s own youth as well as their present. Its lessons are universal in time and place and more boys would be better off if they took the lessons to heart.