I Am the Cheese

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I Am the Cheese

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading

Robert Cormier


I Am the Cheese, published in 1977, was Robert Cormier's second young adult novel. It tells the story of a teenaged boy who discovers that his family is part of a witness protection program and that his parents have been keeping secrets from him all his life. As he tries to determine who and what he is, he is threatened and finally overcome by the terrifying forces of a government that is more interested in preserving its own power than in protecting one small boy. The idea for the book grew out of Cormier's reading a magazine article about the then-new federal witness protection program and his fascination with the idea of individuals struggling against an unjust society.

The book has sold consistently well since its publication, but it has also attracted controversy. Some have felt that the book's complicated structure and pessimistic ending are inappropriate for young people, and the novel has occasionally been challenged and banned in school libraries. Nonetheless, it has been recognized for excellence by several influential organizations, including the American Library Association and the Children's Literature Association. It was named an Outstanding Book of the Year by the New York Times and a Best Book of the Year by School Library Journal, among other recognitions.

Author Biography

Robert Cormier was born on January 17, 1925, in Leominster, Massachusetts, the town that served as the model for Cormier's fictional Monument, Massachusetts, the setting for several of his novels. He was one of eight children of Lucien Cormier, a factory worker, and his wife Irma. Growing up in the Great Depression, Cormier enjoyed the inexpensive means of recreation available to him, especially going to the movies and reading books from the public library. When he was about thirteen, he read Thomas Wolfe's novel The Web and the Rock, about a boy who wants to be a writer. As an adult, Cormier remembered this novel as the most important influence on his own decision to become a writer.

After graduating from high school in 1942, Cormier tried to join the military and help fight World War II, but his poor eyesight kept him out. Instead, he took a factory job and enrolled in college classes. When one of his professors submitted a story of his to a magazine without Cormier's knowledge, he became a published author for the first time. Newly confident in his writing skills, he left college and took a job writing radio commercials. Soon after, he met, courted, and married Constance Senay. They had four children.

Cormier's next job was as a newspaper reporter, a job he sought because it would enable him to both write and support a family. He worked as a journalist for more than thirty years and won several awards for his work. Meanwhile, in his spare time he turned again to fiction in the late 1950s and published his first novel, Now and at the Hour, in 1960. He established a routine of writing fiction late at night, when the rest of the family had gone to bed.

Cormier's fourth novel, based on the experience of one of his teenaged sons at school, was The Chocolate War (1974). His first novel for and about young adults, the book has been both popular and controversial; it has sold nearly a million copies, and has occasionally been banned or challenged in schools and libraries because of its gloomy realism. In 1977, Cormier published his second young adult novel, I Am the Cheese, which was also popular with young readers but criticized by some adults because of its pessimistic ending. This was followed by nine more novels, a collection of short stories, and a collection of newspaper columns.

Some critics have speculated that Cormier might have become more famous if he had traveled more or moved to a big city, but he liked staying near his family in his hometown. His marriage to Constance lasted until his death—more than fifty years—and he worked with the same literary agent for more than forty years. Cormier was still living in Leominster, the town where he was born, when he suffered his last illness. He died of lung cancer in a Boston hospital on November 2, 2000.

Plot Summary

Chapter 1

I Am the Cheese opens with the words "I am riding the bicycle and I am on Route 31." These words are important for several reasons: they introduce the novel's protagonist, they establish the first-person point of view and present tense that will characterize one strand of the novel, and they begin a paragraph that will be repeated later in the novel. In this first chapter, one of fifteen in the present tense, the narrator is a teenage boy riding an old bicycle from Monument, Massachusetts, to Rutterburg, Vermont, to bring a securely wrapped gift to his father.

The boy, Adam, appears to have decided on this trip rather abruptly: he did not tell anyone at home or at school that he was leaving, he did not call "Amy," and he did not take his pills. He quietly wrapped up his father's gift, grabbed an old cap to keep his ears warm in the October wind, and took his savings of thirty-five dollars and ninetythree cents. Now, as he bikes along, he looks over his shoulder to see whether he is being followed. Only four or five miles into the seventy-mile trip he is getting tired, but a long downhill lets him coast for a while.

Chapter 2

The second chapter begins with code letters ("TAPE OZK 001"), followed by a transcript of an interview between "T" and "A." T identifies himself as Brint, and asks questions to help A remember "that night." It seems that A is unable to remember anything clearly, although he has been given some sort of medication to relax him or to help him remember. After a few exchanges on the interview tape, the writing shifts to a prose narrative in the past tense, told by a third-person limited narrator with insight into the mind of one character, who appears to be Adam at an earlier time. A young boy, lying in bed with his Pokey the Pig stuffed animal, overhears an urgent whispered conversation between his parents. He realizes they are trying to keep him from hearing. This past-tense narrative is interrupted by another transcription from the tape, as Brint urges Adam to remember exactly what he heard.

These three strands—the present-tense sections narrated in the first person by Adam, the presenttense transcripts of interview tapes, and the pasttense memories of Adam presented in the third person—are interwoven throughout the remaining thirty-one chapters of the novel. No strand contains direct references to the others, but characters and plot elements overlap to create a mysterious but unified story in the reader's mind. Perhaps the easiest way to understand how the plot unfolds is to trace each strand separately to the end of the novel.

The Tapes

The sixteen transcriptions of Brint's interrogation of Adam form a plot of their own, as Brint tries to see what Adam can remember of his past. In the first few tapes, Brint appears kind and sympathetic as he gently encourages Adam to see just one more thing. He occasionally suggests topics for discussion (for example, the person Paul Delmonte), but he quickly and calmly backs off whenever Adam resists.

In the fourth tape, Adam asks whether Brint is a doctor and if they are in a hospital. The reader will notice, though Adam does not appear to, that Brint does not answer these questions but deftly turns the conversation in another direction. From this point on, Brint takes a more active role in the interviews, steering the interviews toward topics of his choosing. His tone becomes edgier as he presses Adam to remember every detail of a phone call between his mother and aunt, a conversation between his father and Grey, or the contents of his father's desk drawer. It becomes clear that Brint is not interested in Adam's well-being; rather, Brint's goal is to determine whether Adam remembers any information about the corruption his father uncovered.

The last tape, TAPE OZK 016, contains Brint's summary report of his third annual series of interrogations of Adam. He reports that Adam shows no memory of any information his father uncovered and speaks coldly of the earlier "termination of Witness #599–6 and affiliate (spouse)"—Adam's parents. He recommends that Grey (Personnel #2222) be reinstated since it cannot be proven that he aided in their murders. Finally, he recommends that Adam remain in confinement until "termination procedures are approved" or until he "obliterates."

Adam's Memories

Under Brint's interrogation, Adam remembers several key incidents from his past. He remembers walking to the library with his father one day when he was nine years old and his father's suddenly taking a detour through the woods. Adam was not sure why his father abruptly changed course but felt his father had seen or sensed danger.

At other times, Adam remembers Amy Hertz, his only friend. The two met at the library when they collided and dropped their books, and Amy soon became the person who drew Adam out of his isolation. She enjoyed pulling elaborate practical jokes that she called "Numbers," tricks like filling and abandoning grocery carts, or setting car radios in a parking lot on high volume. Amy inadvertently added to Adam's growing suspicions when she told him that she had met a man from Adam's hometown and that this man had never heard of Adam's family. As Adam's suspicions grew, however, something kept him from sharing his questions and his discoveries with Amy.

Media Adaptations

  • I Am the Cheese is available as an unabridged audiobook from Recorded Books, LLC. It was produced in 1994 and narrated by J. Woodman and J. Randolph Jones.
  • I Am the Cheese was adapted as a commercial motion picture in 1983. Directed by Robert Jiras, the film stars Robert Wagner as Brint.

When Adam was fourteen, he became curious enough to look in his father's locked desk drawer. There he found two different birth certificates in his own name, listing two different dates of birth. Soon he discovered that, contrary to what his parents had always told him, he had a living relative, his mother's sister, whom his mother phoned once a week. Finally, this told him everything: The family's real name was not Farmer but Delmonte; Adam's birth name was Paul. David Delmonte, Adam's father, had been a newspaper reporter who had uncovered evidence of a link between organized crime and the government. After he testified before Congress, the family was given a new identity and moved to Monument, Massachusetts, where the mysterious Mr. Grey had kept an eye on them ever since.

Shortly after Adam/Paul learned the truth about his family, Mr. Farmer received instructions from Mr. Grey to take the family on a vacation. Adam and his parents headed for Vermont, singing and enjoying being together. When they stopped at a scenic overlook, another car deliberately ran into them, killing David's mother instantly. Adam's last memories were of his father running away and of Mr. Grey looking at his mother's body.

Adam's Bike Ride

In the present-tense sections of the novel, Adam continues his bike ride toward Rutterburg, Vermont, to bring his father a gift. He is lonely and frightened as he bikes along, but he bolsters his courage by singing "The Farmer in the Dell," the song his father used to sing on family outings, and by thinking about phoning Amy when she is home from school. Along the way, Adam encounters various hazards: a cold rain, two young men who chase and threaten him, another boy who steals his bike. At a pay phone he calls Amy's number, but a strange man answers. Puzzled, Adam keeps going. When he gets to a motel where he plans to spend the night, he is told that the motel has been closed for years—another mystery, since he recently stayed there with his parents.

Finally, Adam reaches Rutterburg, where he comes to a hospital and a doctor who calls him "Paul" and escorts him to his room. Apparently, Adam's bike trip has been mostly in his imagination—he has only been circling the hospital grounds. The package turns out to be Pokey the Pig, Adam's only source of comfort, and he is grateful to have it back in his arms. Lying in bed, Adam sings the last verse of "The Farmer in the Dell," in which "The cheese stands alone" and concludes, "I am the cheese." Chillingly, the last chapter of the novel occurs after Brint's last tape. It is just a paragraph, and it begins where the first chapter began: "I am riding the bicycle and I am on Route 31."



The man known only as Brint interrogates Adam on the interview tapes. At first he appears to be a psychiatrist, helping Adam remember his past. His tone is gentle and kind, and he encourages Adam to take his time. Gradually, it becomes clear that he has his own agenda and that discovering what Adam can remember is perhaps more important to Brint than it is to the boy. As the reader begins to distrust Brint, so does Adam, and he resists answering Brint's questions. When Adam voices his mistrust or asks Brint a direct question about his intentions, Brint cleverly changes the subject, and Adam, in his drugged state, does not notice the deception. In the end, it appears that Brint is not a psychiatrist at all but a government investigator attempting to determine whether Adam ("Subject A") remembers anything incriminating.

Adam Farmer

Adam Farmer is the main character of the novel; he narrates one strand of the story in the first person and is the center of the action in the other two strands. Adam is a pleasant but shy and nervous boy who has few friends and little confidence. He is often afraid—of dogs, open spaces, closed spaces, "a thousand things." He wants to be a writer, like Thomas Wolfe. As he enters his teen years, he falls in love with Amy, who draws him out of his shell, and he begins to notice that his parents seem to have a secret. Slowly, he discovers that he was born with a different name (Paul Delmonte) and that he and his parents were relocated and given new identities by the government. In the "present" strands of the novel, Adam is riding his bike to visit his father in Rutterburg, Vermont, a town seventy miles away. In another strand of the novel, he is interrogated by a man named Brint, who wants to know what Adam remembers of his past. Gradually, it becomes clear that Adam/Paul is being held in some sort of mental institution, continually drugged. His bike trip, as is revealed at the end of the novel, occurs mostly in Adam's imagination. In fact, his father and his mother are dead. Remembering "The Farmer in the Dell," the song his father used to sing, Adam is the one who says to himself near the end of the novel, "I am the cheese"—the cheese that stands alone.

David Farmer

David Farmer, Adam's father, was born Anthony Delmonte, and until Adam/Paul was a toddler he was a newspaper reporter. When he discovered a connection between organized crime and government officials, he testified before Congress, was threatened, and had his wife and son relocated and renamed, along with himself, by the U.S. Department of Re-Identification. Since then, he has gone by the name Mr. Farmer, worked as an insurance agent, and kept in touch with the mysterious Mr. Grey. The relationship between Adam and his father is warm and close; they enjoy spending time together, and their love and respect is obvious. Adam's happiest memories are of his father leading the family in an off-key rendition of "The Farmer in the Dell." When Adam begins to unravel the family secret, Mr. Farmer tells him about the relocation but assures his son that the government is keeping them safe. Shortly afterward, however, the family is lured out of town and deliberately hit by a car. Adam's last memory is of his father running away from the scene of the accident, but Brint's final tape reveals that Mr. Farmer is dead.

Louise Farmer

Louise Farmer, Adam's mother, is a reclusive and frightened woman who keeps to the house most of the time. Until Adam begins to learn about the family's secret, he does not understand his mother's condition, but he is protective and loyal toward her. Mrs. Farmer, previously Louise Nolan Delmonte, has entered the witness protection program with her husband and son, but, unlike her husband, she has never trusted Mr. Grey or the government's promise to keep them safe. The product of an unhappy childhood and a life of struggle, she does not trust easily. She clings to her Catholic faith and attends Mass regularly. Occasionally she defies Mr. Grey in small ways, but the thought of putting her family in danger terrifies her. Her only relief from fear comes during the weekly phone call she is allowed to make to her sister, Martha, a cloistered nun. Her fears prove warranted at the end of the novel, when she is murdered in front of Adam.

Mr. Grey

The man Adam thinks of as Mr. Grey at first appears to be Mr. Farmer's boss in the insurance business. He visits Adam's father periodically, and the two men disappear into Mr. Farmer's basement office to talk business. In fact, Grey's name is really Thompson, and he is the government man responsible for keeping the Farmer/Delmonte family safe. It is Mr. Grey who tells them where to live, where and when to take a vacation, and when to be extra cautious. Adam's mother does not trust him, and her suspicions appear to be justified when Adam recognizes Mr. Grey at the scene of his mother's death. Brint also suspects that Grey ("Personnel #2222") may have had a hand in Adam's parents' deaths but concludes that there is no hard evidence to prove it.

Amy Hertz

Amy Hertz, daughter of the local newspaper editor, is confident where Adam is uncertain, cynical where he is trusting. She takes delight in breaking the rules by doing the mostly harmless practical jokes she calls "Numbers." Amy is important to Adam, first as his only real friend and later as his girlfriend. When Adam gets discouraged during his bike trip, the thought that he will be able to phone Amy gives him hope. When he does call her number, however, the man who answers does not know Amy—an early clue that the bike trip itself may not be what it seems. Amy, however, is above suspicion, the only person in Adam's life who is exactly who and what she appears to be.

Martha Nolan

Martha Nolan is Mrs. Farmer's older sister and only living relative, a cloistered nun living in Portland, Maine. After the family's relocation, Mr. Grey allows Mrs. Farmer to make one phone call per week to Martha, since Martha has no contact with the outside world and could not accidentally give anyone information about the Farmers. These Thursday phone calls are the only joy in Mrs. Farmer's week. When Adam eavesdrops on one of the phone calls, he learns for the first time that he also has a living relative, an aunt.


The Individual against Society

Like the central character of Cormier's earlier work, The Chocolate War, Adam Farmer confronts forces that are stronger than he is, and he ultimately faces them alone and loses. These forces in I Am the Cheese are all the more sinister because they are housed where Adam should be able to expect protection—in his own government and his psychiatrist—and because the danger arose only after Mr. Farmer committed a courageous and moral act.

For fourteen years, Adam's parents do their best to keep him safe. Mr. Farmer at first refuses the government's offer of a new identity, accepting only when he realizes that his wife and child are also in danger. In hiding, the Farmers seem in some ways to have a relatively normal life, and the scenes of the family laughing and singing "The Farmer in the Dell" are lighthearted and warm. However, their safety is in isolation. Mrs. Farmer does not join committees and make friends as Mrs. Hertz does; in fact, she almost never leaves the house. Mr. Farmer is cut off from his work as a writer. The family appears to have no living relatives, no friends, no neighbors to chat over the fence with. This isolation becomes a part of Adam's personality. Although he does not share his parents' fear of discovery, he is a frightened and shy child. Amy Hertz seems to be his first close friend, but, even as he comes to love her, he never confides in her. He and his parents are alone, with only Mr. Grey to protect them and connect them to the outside world.

Of course, as Mrs. Farmer suspects all along, Mr. Grey cannot (or will not) protect them. Although it is unclear whether Grey arranged the car accident or was trying to prevent it, he is there at the moment that Adam is finally separated from his parents. Now Adam is on his own, in the hands of a man who may or may not be a doctor, in a building that may or may not be a hospital, being given drugs that may help or harm him. No one is going to rescue Adam from his confinement because no one knows who or where he is. He will stay a prisoner until he either is "terminated" or he "obliterates." The idea of a teenage boy held prisoner by ruthless adults is made even more shocking by the mention of his only companion: Pokey the Pig. When the individual stands alone against a society this cruel, a serious question is raised about whether or not it is possibile for the individual to prevail.

Innocence and Experience

In many ways, I Am the Cheese is a typical coming-of-age story. During the course of the story, Adam ages from nine years old to about seventeen, and he begins to understand who and what he is. At nine, Adam walks with his father to the library and sees his father frightened for the first time. He also sees his father act bravely to fight off a dog. Typical for a nine-year-old, Adam accepts his father's explanation for the detour and does not challenge his father's plan for escaping the dog. At the corner of his mind, however, is the smallest doubt, which he later labels as his first "clue" that all is not as it appears to be. He is beginning to think of his parents as people who might have emotions, who might make mistakes. Adam is growing up.

When he is fourteen, Adam takes new strides toward adulthood. He befriends Amy Hertz and even falls in love with her, enjoying the sensations of kissing her and touching her breasts. For the first time, he feels a bit embarrassed about his mother's isolation. He dares to look in his father's locked drawer and then begins spying on his parents to learn their secrets. These are natural steps toward independence, as his father acknowledges: "It's your right to know. You're not a child anymore."


Separate Threads

The most challenging element of I Am the Cheese is its three-part structure. Three separate threads, or strands, run side by side through the novel, and there is no omniscient narrator or author's note to explain the connections between them. First-time readers must be patient and allow the separate pieces to sort themselves out.

Topics for Further Study

  • If you were making a film version of I Am the Cheese, whom would you cast to play the part of Brint and how would you tell him to behave during his interrogations of Adam? Would you have him look menacing, or completely innocent? Would you make him clearly evil or kind, or would you leave room for the audience to wonder about his intentions?
  • When I Am the Cheese was first published in 1977, some parents and teachers worried that the unhappy ending would be frightening and inappropriate for young adult readers. They also felt that the language and violence were inappropriate. Compare the novel to other books you have read or to movies or television shows you have seen. What age group do you think the book is best suited for? Explain your reasoning.
  • I Am the Cheese is considered a novel specifically for young adults. What parts of the book make it especially appropriate for this audience? How do you think adults would respond to the novel?
  • Research the psychological concept of repression. Why might Adam have a hard time remembering what happened to his parents? What kinds of medicine and other treatments might he be receiving to help him recover?

The book opens with an unnamed boy riding his bicycle toward his father in the hospital. Who is the boy? Why is his father in the hospital? There are no answers in this section, but there are two clues: the boy lives in Monument, Massachusetts, and he loves Amy Hertz. The next section is an interview between "T" and "A." "A" might be a clue to the boy's name, but then again it might not: the man identified as "T" calls himself "Brint," so the letters are not initials. The third section is a memory of a young boy lying in bed and overhearing a conversation between his parents. The young boy seems to be "A" from the interview, but is this the same boy who is riding a bike?

Gradually, the pieces come together. For the first four chapters the boy on the bike in the present tense is known only as "I" and the boy in the past tense is known only as "he." In the fourth chapter, Brint asks "A" if he would like to discuss Paul Delmonte, but "A" does not recognize the name. In the fifth chapter, the boy in the past-tense strand is identified as Adam Farmer, and it soon becomes clear that Adam Farmer is also the boy on the bike. Each chapter now brings new revelations and seems to offer new understanding until a later chapter shows that some of what seemed clear before is untrue. Adam Farmer does know Paul Delmonte. Mr. Grey is really Mr. Thompson. Mr. Farmer is not in a hospital. Adam is not riding his bike from Massachusetts to Vermont.

This complicated structure (which Cormier himself assumed was too complex for young readers to follow) serves at least two functions in the novel. Adam is given three separate voices: the present-tense first-person narrator voice, the voice on the tapes, and his voice in dialogue during the past-tense sections. These three voices are a testament to Adam's insanity: in his own mind, the three voices speak in turn, out of his control. He cannot control his own thoughts, his own memories. He has forgotten his identity. The three narratives also place the reader at a disadvantage. Like the Farmers, the reader is constantly off balance, unsure what to trust. This is Cormier's message, as spoken by the old man with the map: "Don't trust anybody." As the reader picks her way through the three narratives, she gathers clues and tries to interpret them, but she is frequently deceived. The structure of the novel echoes the structure of modern society: disjointed, deceptive, and beyond individual control.

Historical Context

New Realism

With works including The Chocolate War and I Am the Cheese, Cormier became associated with a movement in young adult literature called new realism. Prior to the mid-1960s, most books written for young adults (that is, for readers in approximately grades six through twelve) had several elements in common: they featured protagonists who were white and from the middle class, mostly living with both parents in suburban neighborhoods; they dealt with themes of growing up and feeling alienated, but they ended with the conflicts resolved and young people feeling safe within their families; they avoided issues such as divorce, drug use, sexual exploration and orientation and other issues that teenagers deal with.

Many fine books that are still considered classics were written during the first half of the twentieth century, but in the 1960s a different kind of book began to appear. These books were categorized as a fresh movement called new realism, which dealt with controversial issues that previous books had avoided, spoke in an edgier tone, and maintained the undecorated approach of realism. Often, they did not end happily.

The idea of a literature intended for young adults is a relatively new one; in fact, the arrangement that teens would still live a protected life within their families and devote their energies primarily to education did not exist in the United States until the early twentieth century. As children stayed in school longer, instead of marrying or working in the factories to help support their families, teachers looked for literature that would address their particular concerns. As modern life brought with it new challenges and technologies for young people, including divorce, drugs, and contraception, books geared toward adolescents began exploring ways to confront contemporary life. Finally, as an awareness spread throughout the country that not all Americans are white, or well-off, and heterosexual, a wider range of protagonists and settings began to appear.

I Am the Cheese includes many of the features of new realism: a lonely protagonist with a difficult life, his growing awareness of both his sexuality and his independence, adults who cannot be relied on, language that reflects the way young people really spoke in 1977, a complex structure, and a decidedly dark tone and gloomy ending. Some felt at first that young people would be confused or harmed by these new approaches, but new realism has, according to most critics, brought refreshing changes to young adult literature.

Losing Faith in Government

The stereotypical image of the United States in the 1950s is of a land where all citizens were happy and well fed and patriotic, and for many people this was true. With World War II over, there was an increased prosperity and a heightened sense that Americans had united and won over the enemy. The years just after the Vietnam War, however, created a different feeling in many Americans. That war did not end gloriously for the United States, and as journalists and activists investigated government documents, they revealed that the American people had been deceived in many ways about the conduct and results of the war. In 1972, when only a small number of U.S. troops remained in Vietnam, the Watergate burglary was discovered; this incident eventually led to President Richard Nixon resigning in disgrace and the imprisonment of several members of his staff. J. Edgar Hoover, the former head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), died, and evidence began to surface that the FBI had for years used its powers illegally to harass and threaten U.S. citizens. A memo was discovered that showed that the Justice Department had traded a lawsuit settlement for campaign contributions. These and other events were at first shocking to the American people, but gradually they became more cynical and distrusting of their government.

Robert Cormier was no exception. A journalist for over three decades, he knew very well that elected officials are not immune from corruption by money and power. He also witnessed small ways that the government has begun to intrude on our lives. In an interview with Geraldine DeLuca and Roni Natov, he describes his own paranoia about government intrusion, and explains "I wanted to portray the kind of fear that I think is in our lives today."

Compare & Contrast

  • 1970s: The federal Witness Protection Program is new, and not many citizens have factual information about it. Its workings are mysterious, and the program itself seems more the material of fiction than of real life.
    Today: The witness protection program is frequently depicted in novels and films. Although most people still do not have any real knowledge of the program, the fact that it exists does not seem remarkable or frightening.
  • 1970s: Because of the Vietnam War and the Watergate incident with its revelation of deceit at the highest levels of government, the American people are distrustful of their government in a way that they have never been before. Cynicism like that experienced and described by Robert Cormier reaches new levels.
    Today: Many people assume that politicians and government leaders are not completely honest, but this dishonesty does not frighten them as it once did. Surveys reveal that this lack of trust creates feelings of disengagement rather than fear.
  • 1970s: The technology of the day makes it easier for the Farmers to keep their secret. Mr. Farmer keeps his secret documents in a locked drawer, not on a computer, and there is no Internet to help Adam look up old records. As he bikes along, Adam knows he must wait for the next town with a pay phone to call Amy.
    Today: Computers, cell phones, mini cameras, and other technologies are found in many middle class homes like that of the Farmers.

Critical Overview

Although I Am the Cheese has sold well and received several awards since its publication over twenty-five years ago, it was initially resisted by a significant number of teachers, librarians, and parents who felt that the book was unsuitable for young readers. Some objected to small elements in the novel, including a reference to Amy Hertz's breasts, which seemed at the time to be out of step with what was generally available for middle- and high-school readers. The biggest controversy, however, was over the tone of the novel and the decidedly unhappy ending. Believing that young readers should be protected from negative messages, many called for the book to be removed from classrooms and school libraries. The controversy over the relatively recent trend toward darker novels for young people is explained in Rebecca Lukens's essay "From Salinger to Cormier: Disillusionment to Despair in Thirty Years." Lukens, comparing three Cormier novels to J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, shows that Salinger's central character "finds that he is his own best hope" and that "Cormier's characters come to no such faith." She concludes that "unlike Salinger who offers discovery, Cormier offers only despair."

Most critics, however, acknowledge the novel's dark vision but find redeeming qualities in it. In a 1977 review for the Horn Book Magazine, Paul Heins calls the book "a magnificent accomplishment" and "truly a novel in the tragic mode, cunningly wrought, shattering in its emotional implications." Clearly Heins, like many others, did not believe that young readers needed to be shielded from unpleasantness. Roger Sutton, in a 1982 review for School Library Journal, wrote that "under the grim, no-win surface lies a very conventional, respectable morality: wrong may triumph over right, but the reader is certainly shown which is which." Robert Bell, writing in 1978 for the School Librarian, admired the book greatly but issued one caveat: "Sixteen is young enough, I feel, for the harrowing experience of encountering this remarkably powerful book. Very strongly recommended, for any age beyond that."


Cynthia Bily

Bily teaches writing and literature at Adrian College in Adrian, Michigan. In this essay, Bily examines the motif of the doppelgänger in Cormier's novel.

When Robert Cormier published The Chocolate War in 1974, and then I Am the Cheese in 1977, he was heralded (and scolded) for being part of a new trend in literature. This movement, which came to be known as new realism, was in fact new in many ways: it depicted life the way it really is for many people, with its struggles as well as its

joys, and it presented issues and ideas that had not been offered specifically to young readers before.

But like all literature that seems bound to last, I Am the Cheese was not entirely new. Literature is a conversation across the centuries and across cultural borders, and many of the ideas and motifs that most resonate with readers recur in new works, echoing the themes of past works. The idea, for example, that as readers of I Am the Cheese we feel pity for Adam and his fear and despair was first described more than twenty-three hundred years ago by the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who called works that elicit these feelings tragedies. In writing his tragedy, Cormier created a new character in a new setting, but one who follows an ancient path to destruction. Another motif that connects I Am the Cheese with literature from the past is the use of the doppelgänger, or the double.

The word doppelgänger is a German word, meaning "double walker." The experience of meeting one's double is found in folk tales and fairy tales from around the world, but it was German writers of the nineteenth century who gave us the term. The doppelgänger as a literary motif was especially fascinating to writers in the nineteenth century, even before modern psychological theories argued that what we think of as the self is really made up of several selves. The most well-known example is Robert Louis Stevenson's 1886 novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in which a scientist succeeds in separating his own impulses for good and evil into two distinct personalities. Edgar Allan Poe's 1839 short story "William Wilson" features a man who is tormented by his doppelgänger in the form of another man, who reappears throughout his life—unless he is only imagining it. Often, meeting one's double is a sign that death will soon follow, but in Charles Dickens's 1859 novel A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Darnay is saved by his double, Sydney Carton. Other examples include Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Double (1846) and Joseph Conrad's "The Secret Sharer" (1912). All of these writers used the doppelgänger to depict in a concrete way the complex psychological divisions within one character.

In I Am the Cheese, nearly every character has a double, and several characters cross paths with multiple versions of themselves. Because of the witness relocation program, every member of the Farmer family has two identities, or two selves: Adam David Farmer is also Paul Delmonte; Louise Holden Farmer is also Louise Nolan Delmonte; David Farmer is also Anthony Delmonte. The Delmonte selves are like and unlike the Farmer selves. Louise Delmonte loved her small town and the people in it. She was happy and young, and she laughed frequently. Louise Farmer is a very different person. Adam wonders sometimes what has happened "to transform his mother from the laughing, tender woman to whom the scent of lilac clung into the pale and subdued and antiseptic woman who seldom left the house, who lurked behind window curtains." Louise Farmer is a mirror image of Louise Delmonte. She looks just like her other self, but she is her own opposite. David Farmer is similarly a reflection of Anthony Delmonte. Instead of his beloved career as a journalist, he earns his living now as an insurance agent, doing work he does not find satisfying. Whereas he was once brave enough to stand up to the government, he is now afraid of strangers on the street.

Each of Adam's parents also has another double, a person living in Monument who seems to demonstrate what life could have been like. Amy's father works for the town newspaper, doing the work that Mr. Farmer wishes he could return to, and his only mention in the novel is when he entertains another newspaperman from the town where Adam supposedly was born. At the time, Adam does not realize the cruel irony of the situation. Amy's mother has the kind of active life Adam's mother gave up. When Adam first meets her, she is on the phone arranging a committee meeting and then running out the door to another meeting. Mr. and Mrs. Hertz are minor characters whose absence would not have changed the overall plot of the novel. Cormier seems to have included them primarily to serve as doppelgängers, to emphasize what might have been, and to heighten our pity at what Adam's parents have lost.

Adam also has an old identity as Paul Delmonte When he first learns about his old name, it casts into doubt his entire sense of self:

… a small part of him was isolated and alone, a part that was not Adam Farmer any longer but Paul Delmonte. I am Paul Delmonte, a voice whispered inside of him…. Then who is Adam Farmer? Wheredid he come from?

For a while he is uneasy and has to reassure himself that "I am the same person I have been for fourteen years." At times, however, he finds his secret exciting, something to brag about. He is afraid that he might place Amy in danger by telling her his secret, by announcing, "Look, Amy, I'm not just shy and awkward Adam Farmer, but a fugitive on the run, leading a double life. I am Paul Delmonte."

Like his parents, Adam also has another doppelgänger living in Monument: Amy Hertz. Amy is in some ways just like Adam and in some ways his opposite. The first time they meet, it is as though Adam bumps into a mirror: "She was going into the Monument Public Library and he was coming out and they collided at the door. The books they held in their arms spilled all over the place." In a Gothic horror story, we would never be sure whether Amy was a figment of Adam's imagination, but this Amy seems quite real. Still, Adam could not invent a better alter ego: she likes books, as he does, but she is brave where he is timid, full of laughter where he is withdrawn. Only once he meets Amy, his double, does he find the confidence and the brashness to become a spy in his own home.

The first-time reader of I Am the Cheese is not aware of it, but nearly every person Adam meets on his bike ride also has a double. When he finally arrives at the "hospital," he encounters people who are strangely reminiscent of people he meets on his trip, and it gradually becomes clear that he has imagined most of what we assumed happened to him during the journey. The nice old man with the map who helps Adam think through his route is really Mr. Harvester, the maintenance man at the hospital. The dog who chases Adam's bicycle, "a German shepherd, sleek and black, a silent sentinel guarding the driveway of a big white house," is Silver, the dog who lives on the hospital grounds and who "delights in chasing people and knocking them down." In a "small restaurant, a lunchroom really," Adam is harassed by three tough boys, Whipper, Dobbie and Lewis, until Luke the counterman puts down the phone and intercedes; in fact, Whipper, Dobbie, and Lewis are also among the "troubled people" who live at the hospital, and Luke is the switchboard operator who sometimes helps serve meals. And so on. Like the Farmers, and like Mr. Grey, none of the people Adam meets is who she or he appears to be.

It seems clear that Adam has created these doppelgängers, these dual identities, to serve a psychological need of his own. He has repressed the memories of the car accident that was not an accident, and though he is sure that his mother is dead, he cannot remember how he knows this. He wants to believe that he is riding to see his father and bringing something of value to him. So he gets on his bike with his own most valued possession, Pokey the Pig, and rides around and around the hospital grounds. And he creates another reality and other identities to make his life less painful. In Western literature, the appearance of the doppelgänger is never a happy occurrence; it is a sign that calamity, usually death or insanity, is near. As the last chapters of the novel show, Adam is very close to the end, either through termination or obliteration, when his world of doppelgängers is revealed.

But answering the question of why Adam imagines or creates doubles for the people around him raises another, fascinating question: What else has he created? If the entire bike trip happened only in his imagination, what reason is there to believe that the events in the novel's other strands actually happened?

The doctor at the hospital calls the boy "Paul." Could the boy have created the identity of Adam Farmer out of his imagination? Poe's "William Wilson" is also told by a first-person narrator, and by the end of the story there is great doubt as to whether he has actually met another man who is his double or whether his insanity has only led him to think so. Could the same be true of Adam/Paul?

The fact is, we can never know. Was Adam Farmer created by Mr. Grey or by Paul Delmonte? ("Who is Adam Farmer? Where did he come from?") Are the tapes verifiable documentation that something actually occurred to Subject A, perhaps at the hand of Personnel #2222 (also known as Mr. Grey and as Thompson), or is the sly reference to The Wizard of Oz in the "OZK series tapes" a hint that, like Dorothy's experiences, it has all been a dream? Cormier has layered so many levels of duplicity and deceit that it is impossible to tell. Either the government agencies in charge of protecting the Delmonte family are so intrusive and so false that nothing that touches them can be trusted, or the entire novel is the result of the wandering imagination of an insane child. Neither is a comforting thought. With the motif of the doppelgänger, Cormier participates in a long literary tradition, even as he locates his novel in the terrifying double world of modern society.

Source: Cynthia Bily, Critical Essay on I Am the Cheese, in Novels for Students, Gale, 2003.

Jean W. Ross

In the following Contemporary Authors (CA) interview, Ross presents an interview with Robert Cormier that was conducted by telephone on April 13, 1987.

CA: After three novels and many short stories for adults, The Chocolate War was a resounding success and placed you solidly as a writer for young adults. It wasn't a label you'd consciously sought. How do you feel about it now, and how much does it influence the actual writing?

Cormier: Sometimes I'm of two minds about it. On the one hand, this label has gained me a terrific audience of young people, and I know the success of my career has turned on that audience. I hear from them all the time, letters and phone calls, and I do a lot of speaking at schools and libraries, which I enjoy very much doing. So it has been very good. The only qualm I do have is that I think the label does limit my audience. I really don't feel that I write young adult books, and I think a lot of adults who might read them stay away from them because of the label. But that is the only detrimental effect I can come up with.

In terms of my own writing, the beautiful part of it is that I can still write and have this audience and yet not limit my plots or my subtleties. I don't have to simplify stories. I write as if the audience didn't exist, really. I've aimed for the intelligent reader and have often found that that reader is fourteen years old. CA: You told Victoria Irwin for the Christian Science Monitor that you enjoy writing about young people because you feel an affinity for them. Did that come primarily from having your own children?

Cormier: Yes, I think it definitely did. First of all, it comes from memories of my own teenage years. If I have total recall of anything, it's not facts and figures but the way those years were, and not ever wanting to go through them again. Then when my own children became teenagers, I saw them going through the same things I'd gone through and realized that they were universal and timeless. Seeing my own children renewing those adolescent years did lead me to start writing about them—but not for them. The short stories prior to The Chocolate War in which I dealt with young people were inspired by that same combination of my children's experiences and my memories of my own.

CA: Yes. You explained in the introductions to the stories collected in Eight Plus One how things that happened to your children played a part inyour writing, and The Chocolate War grew out of an experience your son Peter had. How have your children responded to your books?

Cormier: They're very supportive. One thing that makes a parent feel good is doing something that makes his children proud of him. They've all been avid readers, so my having achieved a reputation as a writer has made them very proud. And it's always been a family affair anyway. While they were growing up, I was writing all the time. They shared the bad times, the rejections, as well as the good times when a sale would come along and we'd go out and have a family dinner to celebrate, or go shopping and buy gifts. They've always been very much a part of the writing.

CA: And you've more than once spoken of the support your wife has given.

Cormier: Oh yes. In fact, I've always thought my wife would have made a great editor, because she has a very discerning eye. She reads my work before anyone else sees it. It's terrific to have a built-in editor, and someone that you trust. She does the final manuscript typing, and then I usually circulate it among my children prior to publication.

CA: In what ways have you found your newspaper work helpful in writing fiction?

Cormier: The main thing, I think, is the discipline it establishes. In newspaper work you write to a deadline; you write every day, when you don't feel like writing. You have to write economically, and sometimes to order. You may cover a lengthy story and then be told to cut it down to two pages. I think a lifetime of doing that carries over to my own work. I find that discipline seems to be such a problem, not only with myself, but with other people. I know a lot of talented people who never seem to get around to writing something. I have always been able to do this on weekend and nights. Besides the discipline I've gotten from the newspaper work, there's that direct journalistic style, which I still use to some extent. I use a lot of similes and metaphors, figures of speech, but essentially my style is very direct, and I strive for clarity. I think that comes out of my newspaper work, making the story real to the reader without any embellishment. In fiction, though, you can embellish somewhat and be more creative.

CA: The subconscious plays a great part in your writing, as you've described it. Are there ways you can aid and abet that faculty so that it can keep working at its best for you?

Cormier: I think why I like novel writing in contrast to short story writing is that your characters are developed, and then they're sort of with you all the time, the way friends would be with you. And sometimes the best idea of what a character should do in the plot comes when I'm driving the car downtown or something like that. In terms of a schedule, I don't think of what I have to write on a given day. For instance, when I sat down this morning at the typewriter, I wasn't thinking in terms of having to write five pages or ten pages, but of what the characters were going to do. That's how they become real and stay with you.

I think the subconscious works in another way. I usually look at the writing late at night before I go to bed and begin writing again in the morning. I have a feeling something happens while I sleep. This night-morning habit sets up a continuity and a momentum, and I'm sure the subconscious has a part in that. It's hard to trace it, but I know that if I'm away from the work for a while, like on an extended trip, it's harder getting back in the swing of things, because the characters start fading in my mind.

In an interview with Paul Janeczko for English Journal you said that you write to communicate the emotions of your characters. How emotionally involved with them do you become in the writing?

Cormier: Very emotionally involved, really. Often things happen to them that upset me, that I don't want to happen. I was greatly affected by Kate's death in After the First Death, and the death of the little boy, Raymond. When I realized that the situation was set up so that a child would have to be murdered in cold blood, I really was aghast that I'd written myself in to that kind of corner. Knowing what had to happen when I saw Kate's fate developing, knowing that she would ultimately and ironically do something that would cause her death, really bothered me. You do get involved with your characters, which is sometimes a hard thing for people who don't write to understand. I've said this at symposiums, and people look at me strangely. It doesn't bother me as much as if real people die, not to that extent. But it does affect me.

CA: Is your own emotion during the writing a measure of how well a story is working?

Cormier: Yes, definitely. In fact, I abandoned a novel a couple of years ago because of that. I thought it was a very clever plot, and I still think it's a very clever plot, with a couple of great psychological twists. My protagonist was a middleaged man, and frankly I was not emotionally involved with him. So he began to bore me, and I just abandoned the novel. Because I wasn't emotionally involved with the character in that novel, it was more or less hack work, being clever. I think writing is more than that.

CA: I Am The Cheese is a difficult book not only emotionally, but also in terms of plot. Patricia J. Campbell discussed it quite intelligently in Presenting Robert Cormier. Do readers have a hard time with it?

Cormier: Yes, they do. I receive an awful lot of mail, and a good deal of it concerns I Am the Cheese. A typical letter from a fourteen-year-old might say, "Dear Mr. Cormier: I just read I Am the Cheese. I read it twice. Will you please answer the following questions …" Then there's a long list of questions. And it's difficult for adults as well. There is a degree of ambiguity in it in the first place; all the questions aren't answered in the story. It's a funny thing about the writing. I wonder sometimes how I might have written a book if I had known the effect it would have on people. Writing is so private; even though you're writing for publication, at the time you're doing it you're not thinking of people reacting in a certain way. So when I see these questions come in, I wonder whether I might have clarified it a bit more. I'm not sure whether I would or not.

CA: What do you hope readers will get from the books?

Cormier: I really try to affect them emotionally, to get some kind of reaction. I hope a book will linger with the reader. I'm not writing to make people feel good, and I think indifference would be the worst of all. I'd rather have a critical review than no review. I'm happy to have people put down the book and say, "Yes, that's the way it could happen. I don't like what happened, but that's the way it could happen.

CA: There's so much dishonesty between adults and young people, as you've said yourself. Adults like to say, "These are the happiest years of your life," and that's usually not true.

Cormier: Yes. Kids are told that all the time. I was told that. I thought, something's got to be wrong, because these are terrible years. They had their peaks and pits, but there were so many pits! And you're not in control of your life. There's no perspective. They tell you they want you to be responsible people, and then they tell you to be in at eleven o'clock. There are all these dichotomies at work. I think some of the dishonesty comes from adults wanting to protect their children from certain realities, to sugar-coat what's going on. I used to be told, "You won't remember this on your wedding day." It didn't help at the moment, when I was really lacerated by something.

CA: No. And once you begin to get smart, you just think you're being lied to a lot.

Cormier: Yes. I think kids are being lied to so much. In fact, they become accustomed to the lies, like the television lie that the good guy wins at the end of the program, the heroes of "Miami Vice" go on forever. They're even lied to in the commercials. Everybody knows that buying the right deodorant is not going to win you love. There's a continual lying going on, and they're adjusting to that. So when they read a realistic book, they cling to it and think, here's someone telling the truth. This is reflected in the letters I get from young people. So many readers say, "You tell it the way it is." That's very gratifying, because I get so many complaints from adult would-be censors.

CA: Speaking of television, one criticism that's made constantly of young people is that they watch television instead of reading. Do you consider television a competitor with your books?

Cormier: It is such a visual world, it's so hard to avoid it. But somebody's reading out there, because kids are reacting. I know a lot of my books are in the classroom, so kids are getting them from teachers. I'd say yes, obviously the kids are watching television, and they can't be reading a book at the same time. We are creating a visual need. On MTV, they're aiming for an attention span of about three minutes. It is having an effect. But thank goodness there are still young people who love to pick up a good book at the library and rush home with it. And there are a number of them around, according to the mail I get.

CA: Do troubled young people call or write for help?

Cormier: Not very often. When it does happen, it really shakes me up emotionally. I received a phone call last year from a girl in a psychiatric clinic in Connecticut who got a great deal of comfort out of I Am the Cheese because she felt that she was without identity, much like Adam, in a world she hadn't made. We spoke for probably a half-hour. Occasionally I'll go into a school and someone will mention a problem. But it's rare. Most of the letters I get are from kids who just want to touch base, and probably want to be writers, so they don't bring up problems. They may say there's a situation in their school something like one I've written about, but they really don't ask my advice about personal problems.

CA: You were reluctant to do a sequel to The Chocolate War, but Beyond the Chocolate War apparently kept tugging at you. After the second book, do you feel through with the characters and the story?

Cormier: I thought I was! I wrote Beyond the Chocolate War after being badgered by young people for years and years asking what happened to the characters from The Chocolate War, and I wanted to find out. I thought I had closed the door on them; by the time I had finished the second book, I was kind of weary of Archie Costello and company. But again they're asking questions. And I'm kind of intrigued with Archie; I sometimes wonder what he would be like a few years into the future—say at twenty-eight. And Jerry Renault still intrigues me. He seemed to develop more for me in the sequel than he did in the original book. It's been on my mind. Who knows? It took me ten years to get around to Beyond the Chocolate War. I have no immediate plans for another book on the topic, but I must say those characters are pretty much alive to me. But then some of the characters from the other books are alive to me even now, and I haven't felt any compulsion to write about them.

CA: Maybe that's a sign that they're good characters, they're real.

Cormier: I hope so. There was a very minor character in The Chocolate War, Tubs Casper, who appeared for one scene. The kids invariably asked about him and what happened to him, almost to the point of being angry with me for introducing him and not bringing him back. And in a way, even though I felt bad that I hadn't brought him back, it delighted me that the character became so real from that one simple scene. It's great when your characters really have life.

CA: How do you feel about Anne Scott MacLeod's definition, in Children's Literature in Education, of your novels as "at bottom, political," because you are "far more interested in the systems by which society operates than … in individuals"?

Cormier: First of all, I'm always conscious of being a storyteller, and stories turn on creating real characters. I have themes or issues that I'm interested in as an individual, and if I can bring them into play, fine. Even writing about a chocolate sale in high school, I suddenly realized that I was exploring the abuse of power, intimidation, things like that. But those aren't my primary concerns. I'm always most concerned with the story itself and the people, creating people who really live and affect the reader. A story doesn't work at all unless the character are real. I don't think of myself as a thematic writer or as writing primarily to explore current issues or to expose things going on in the world. This is secondary. And while I hope it's there on a secondary level and can be explored and communicated, I think of myself primarily as a storyteller.

CA: Do you think criticism in the field of young adult literature is generally good?

Cormier: I think there are some very good things being done now. The Twayne series of biographies of young adult writers, of which mine is one, I think is a good step ahead. The ALAN Review, which concentrates on young adult books, has some great articles. VOYA (Voice of Youth Advocates) does a fine job. Slowly but surely, I think, the critical writing is becoming much more widespread and better than it was a few years ago. I think the best critical writing is the kind that illuminates the work for the subject. Patricia Campbell did that in her Twayne book; she made some links that surprised me. That kind of criticism is valid, but sometimes I read something I'm very puzzled about, because it wasn't anything that I had in mind. Often critics look for symbolism in things that really don't exist. And yet I think there are some subconscious things that get into the books that I'm probably not even aware of.

CA: Much of the critical writing on your work has dealt with its bleakness, and you have countered the criticism in various ways, depending on the specific circumstances. How would you respond to the charge now, considering the body of your work at this point?

Cormier: I guess my attitude hasn't changed. I've never let the criticism affect my writing. I think there are values in my work that go beyond the bleakness. I'm so used to hearing that criticism, I really don't give it much thought. If I feel I'm doing my job honestly, being faulted for other things doesn't bother me. And I didn't set out to explore a whole bleak landscape in a body of work. When I wrote The Chocolate War, I wasn't aware that I was going to write I Am the Cheese. I didn't feel the books were that similar when I was writing them. The thing I've always been afraid of is rewriting the same novel; that's why I hesitated to do a sequel to The Chocolate War. That's one of the reasons why Jerry was such a problem: I didn't want to bring him back to Trinity, because I thought then I would just be writing The Chocolate War all over again. So I've been careful about that, even though people have looked at my writing as a body of work and seen similarities. I try to make each novel as different as possible. But maybe I haven't. It's always how the reader sees it.

The novel that I'm now working on is different from the work that is recent, at least. It's not because I was trying to strike out in any particular direction; it's something that took hold of me emotionally at a particular time in my life. I just go to the typewriter every day, and characters come to life for me to write about.

Source: Jean W. Ross, "Interview with Robert Cormier," in Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 23, Gale Research, 1988, pp. 87–94.

Patricia J. Campbell

In the following essay, Campbell explores how subsequent readings of I Am the Cheese, while not involving the surprise of a first reading, allow readers to recognize clues and appreciate the literary structure of the novel.


P: Stop.

R: You mean stop reading?

P: Yes. You, the reader. Right here. First, before you go on, you must answer one question.

R: What do you want to know?

P: Have you read I Am the Cheese yet?

R: No. I thought I'd read this chapter first.

P: That would be a great pity. It would spoil things for you—the suspense, the intriguing perplexities, the myriad shocks of discovery, the false leads—in a word, the fun. I would emphatically advise that you make the journey with Adam before you cover the same ground a second time with me.

R: All right.

P: Excellent. We shall continue afterwards. Let us suspend now.


And so, having finished the book, the reader is irresistibly compelled to turn back to the beginning and, like Adam, begin all over again. The story circles back on itself, revolving like the wheels of a bicycle, like children in a ring playing "The Farmer in the Dell." But for the reader, unlike Adam, each time the experience is different.

The first time through, we know only what Adam knows. Our blank spaces are his, and the truth comes to us—and to him—in a series of disorienting jolts. As the New York Times said, "the book is assembled in mosaic fashion: a tiny chip here, a chip there, and suddenly the outline of a face dimly begins to take shape. Everything is related to something else…." But this is far too simple a description. Perry Nodelman, in his incisive article "Robert Cormier Does a Number," has attempted to analyze the complex and unsettling experience of a first reading of I Am the Cheese.

A reader's first impulse, Nodelman observes, is to approach the story as a logical, detached detective. The key, it seems, is in understanding the events of the mysterious past. But this leads to anxiety, disorientation, and confusion—"that uncertainty we call suspense"—because the events of the present are not clear. "Since we do not know what effects the mysterious past we are trying to understand led to, we act less with the cool certainty of mystery novel detectives than with the anxiety of confused people asked to think logically about incomplete information. That sounds uncomfortable—and it is. Cormier cleverly makes us accept and enjoy our confusion by providing one genuine past … and what appear to be two different presents that that past led to…. With our attention focused on sorting suchthings out, looking for clues and making guesses, we accept our uncertainty about present circumstances as part of the pleasure of the mystery."

The one possibility that never occurs to us, continues Nodelman, is that both presents are happening at once, that Adam is at the same time on a journey to Rutterburg and being interrogated by Brint. "Cormier cannot allow us to consider it, for it depends on our knowledge that the bike trip is a fantasy, knowledge that is the key to the entire mystery. He deflects our attention from the literal truth of the novel, the impeccably chronological ordering of events that seem to have no chronology, by making them seem to have no chronology. How Cormier manipulates readers into believing the wrong things and ignoring the right ones is fascinating to explore."

A close look at the two opening chapters, first as a novice and then as an experienced reader of I Am the Cheese, will illustrate this process. In the beginning we know only that someone is riding a bicycle from Monument to Rutterburg. Who? Why? A young person, evidently, who has been close enough to his father still to want to use an old bike like his, even though it makes him pedal "furiously"—a strangely intense word. The rhythm of the paragraph suggests the steady pumping of his legs. Then the first tiny hint of something sinister: "the wind like a snake slithering up my sleeves."

In the second paragraph we learn that the sight of a hospital reminds the rider of his father in Rutterburg. Is he ill there? Is the journey to visit him? Whatever it is, it must be urgent because the cyclist accelerates his pedaling at the thought. Then another hint of chill—the rotten October. The love of Thomas Wolfe that the cyclist has shared with his father confirms our guess about their relation-ship, and the elderly phrase used to describe a teacher—"he regarded me with suspicion"—tells us that the person is a student, young but bookish and probably solitary. And he is kind—he waves when he passes a child who looks lonesome. But why does he think someone might be following him? Now he tells us he didn't wave good-bye to anybody when he left on this trip. Why not? Where were they? This is not the kind of person who skips school and goes away without at least telling someone. It doesn't fit. We begin to feel puzzled.

Immediately, Cormier gives us what seems to be an explanation of sorts: the irrational fears, and later, the pills, tell us that the bike rider has emotional problems. But why? Other questions come fast now. What is the gift? Why are his father's clothes in the cellar? If he has money, why doesn't he take the bus?—his reasons ring a bit hollow. Why is it so important that he go on his own power? And why must he do it this way "for his father"? The intensity of his determination seems inappropriate—but perhaps it is a sign of his unbalanced state.

Then another character is introduced: Amy Hertz. She, we know immediately, is a very different kind of person. "What the hell, as Amy says, philosophically." A tough, cocky, self-assured sort of person. The fact that such a girl is the object of the bike rider's love tells us more about his needs (and also confirms that he is a young man). But his reasons for not phoning her before he leaves seem logical. When he dumps his pills into the garbage disposal he seems "reckless and courageous" to us as well as to himself, and when a car howls its horn at him "for straying too far into the roadway" we think it is a result of that recklessness. It becomes apparent that the journey is going to be long and grueling, and as the boy struggles through, breaks free, and is off on his way, we are too busy exulting with him to notice that we have been left with a double handful of unanswered questions.

The second chapter clarifies nothing; indeed, it adds a second layer of perplexities. The preceding chapter was in the present tense, and so is this one, at first. Has the boy been in some sort of an accident that has put him here in the hands of a doctor? Or is this even the same boy? Is one of the chapters a flashback to the other? Which? The form is even more puzzling. It seems to be some sort of official record of a tape recording, but for what possible reason can the date have been deleted? Why is the questioner labeled "T" when his name is Brint? Does it stand for "tape"? Or "therapist," perhaps? (Cormier himself has said that he used "T" because it is the last letter of Brint's name—but, then, can that statement be part of the Number?) Even for a psychiatrist his speech is strangely stilted and formal: "shall," "I have been advised," and that ominous phrase from the torture chamber, "the better it will be for you." But when the questioning turns to the boy's earliest memories we are on familiar ground again. Isn't that how people always begin with a therapist? Even the sense of menaced flight that pervades the boy's story could be explained by his mental illness, as could his perception of Brint as threatening. Except for two disquieting details: the cigarettes that his father never again smoked, and the way Brint pounces on the word clues. When the boy dissolves in panic, almost, but not quite, we believe in Brint's benevolence when he says, " Everything's going to be all right." But there have been no answers to some basic questions, nor will there be any until many, many pages later. As Nodelman says, "novelists usually make us ask such questions at the beginnings of novels, in order to arouse our interest. But they usually quickly answer them, and then focus our attention on new developments … In keeping us in the dark … Cormier extends throughout most of I Am the Cheese the disorientation we usually stop feeling a short way into other novels."

"A second reading … is a different experience. Now the novel seems filled with clues, with obvious evidence of what seemed incomprehensible before, and with huge ironies." All of Adam's forgotten past is still available to us, and we can see his buried knowledge at work on the fabric of his fantasy. As he goes about his preparations for the journey to Rutterburg, we also at the same time see him preparing for the ride around the hospital grounds, and we know that the road he will travel in his imagination is the same route he and his parents took on the fatal "vacation" trip, in a different Thomas Wolfe October. This time we know why he doesn't wave good-bye to anyone and why he talks himself out of calling Amy. It is his own loneliness that stands on the sidewalk in the form of a child and his own fear of Them that follows behind invisibly. His fear needs a face, so he tells himself that he is afraid of elevators, exposed open spaces, rooms without windows, dogs—all animals, in fact, plus snakes and spiders ("they are not rational," he explains later, cryptically). He knows there is good reason for terror, but he dare not give it its true name.

Even though he has money, he must talk himself into pedaling the bike because he is going nowhere there are buses, and he "travels light" because he needs no "provisions or extra clothing" for that trip inside the fence. His father's jacket and cap are, to him, in the basement because that is where he last saw them in his past, even though Dr. Dupont has brought them to him here in the hospital. And Pokey the Pig, who represents the safe comfort of childhood and will be gift-wrapped, is in "the cabinet in the den" where Adam searched for and found the first terrible evidence of his own nonexistence. He dresses in his father's clothes and looks in the mirror as if to bring him back to life. But he must justify it to his conscious mind by remarking how good the cap is for the cold. It is the hospital that has provided him with the mind-clouding green and black capsules that he pours into the sink. And it is the memory of the car that killed his mother that blares past as he leaves the driveway. Only his thoughts of Amy are fresh and clear and not over-laid with anything else.

Now when Adam tells Brint the story of his parents' escape we know why "their voices scratched at the night," why Adam's father never smoked again, why there were purple half-moons under his mother's eyes. The slightly inappropriate word clues has, of course, been implanted in his mind by Brint during earlier investigations. When Adam says, "It's as if I was born that night," we appreciate the irony, and when he wants to tell Pokey how brave and clever he has been, we recall with poignance that in the end—and now—there is no one but Pokey to listen sympathetically to such confidences. Even the number of the tape—OZK 001—is significant. It reminds us of The Wizard of Oz and Dorothy's return to Kansas where she, like Adam, is reunited with the real people who appear as fantasy characters in her dream. But Cormier is still not through playing games with us. Adam associates the lilac perfume with his mother—but in the last chapter of the book he has noticed that fragrance in the hallway of the hospital. And we still don't really know why Brint is recorded as "T."

The triple strands that are braided together to make the story, the three alternating levels on which the narrative progresses, are an intricate but internally consistent device. The bike ride is told in first-person present tense. The tapes, as dialogue, have neither person nor tense (but we assume they are happening in the present), and the revelation of Adam's past that grows out of the tapes proceeds chronologically and is in third-person past tense. A slightly confusing factor is that in the early phases of the bike ride Adam enjoys some memories of the warm, safe times of his childhood—and these fit into the chronology of the memories he is sharing with Brint. This is all perfectly clean-cut and clear the second time around, but a first-time reader feels that the events of the story have been scrambled intriguingly.

Of all the sinister characters Cormier has created to embody his ideas about evil, Brint is perhaps the most chilling. Indeed, it is tempting at first to jump to the conclusion, because of his stiffly formal speech, that he is a machine, perhaps some kind of interrogation computer. Tempting, because the worst thing about Brint, the most appalling realization, is that he is (or was) a human being, but he has been so corrupted by his immersion in evil that he can sit year after year across from Adam, calmly herding him through lacerating self-discoveries and feeling not one flicker of pity or mercy. Only twice does he seem human, but in both cases it is immediately clear that the pose is a trick. At one point he exclaims about the beauty of the weather—but only to jolly Adam out of a deep withdrawal. Later, when Adam is remembering his father's distrust of Grey, he suddenly sees something in Brint's expression that makes him suspect that he is "one of those men who had been his father's enemy." Brint, realizing that he has almost given himself away, covers quickly. "I am sorry that you were disturbed by the expression on my face. I, too, am human. I have headaches, upset stomach at times. I slept badly last night. Perhaps that's what you saw reflected on my face" But Adam is not entirely convinced. "It's good to find out you're human," he grants uncertainly. "Sometimes I doubt it."

Much of the content of the dialogue portion of the tapes is the progress of Adam's reluctant realization that Brint is his enemy. He wants so much to believe in him as a benevolent father-figure, who has his welfare at heart, that sometimes he even tries to prompt Brint into this role. He wonders aloud why Brint never asks him about his mother, and another time he is a bit hurt when Brint interrupts his reminiscences, and he says plaintively, "You sound impatient. I'm sorry. Am I going into too much detail? I thought you wanted me to discover everything about myself." Later he finally cannot avoid noticing that it is only certain kinds of information that interest his interrogator, although he repeatedly protests that he has only Adam's welfare at heart. But Adam really does know the truth about Brint, and he cannot entirely hide it from himself, even at the beginning. In the second tape he says, "He had a kindly face although sometimes his eyes were strange. The eyes stared at him occasionally as if the doctor—if that's what he was—were looking down the barrel of a gun, taking aim at him. He felt like a target." Adam is completely in Brint's power, both physically and mentally. The windows of the interrogation room are barred; the shots and the pills control his feelings and his mind. To recognize his captor as the enemy is unbearable, and so he pushes away the knowledge as long as he can and tries to find goodness in Brint. And so does the reader. It is this blurring of the distinction between good and evil that gives the tapes their peculiar horror, and that points to the larger theme of the book.

What Do I Read Next?

  • The Chocolate War (1974) was Cormier's first novel for young adults. With its disturbing ending in which the lone hero does not win against evil forces, it caused a controversy similar to that caused by I Am the Cheese.
  • In Fade (1988), Cormier presents another three-part structure and another story of hidden identity. The first third of the novel is based on Cormier's own life as a small-town New England boy in the 1930s.
  • Chaim Potok's My Name Is Asher Lev (1972) is a novel about a Hasidic Jewish boy growing up in Brooklyn. A loner who shares Adam Farmer's desire to become a writer, Asher finds that his artistic impulses put him in conflict with his family and his community.
  • Where the Lilies Bloom (1969), by Vera Cleaver and Bill Cleaver, is a novel about a family of orphan children in Appalachia who keep their father's death a secret so they will not be split up. The second-oldest child, the young teen Mary Call, struggles to keep her family together against challenges posed by the adults in her life.
  • WITSEC: Inside the Federal Witness Protection Program (2002) is written by Pete Earley and also by Gerald Shur, the federal attorney who created the program. Through the examples of many people who have been relocated through the program, the book reveals some cases gone awry and also many successes, but none of the duplicity hinted at in I Am the Cheese.

Cormier has had some revealing things to say about Brint. He chose the name, he says, to suggest someone bloodless and cold, to rhyme with flint and glint. At first he was not sure whether the character was a psychiatrist or not. "But I thought this would be the way it would sound if a character were using a slight knowledge of psychology to take advantage of a situation." Brint's knowledge may be "slight," but he has certainly learned the superficial tricks of the trade, as when he turns Adam's suspicions back on himself by accusing him of attacking his therapist to create a diversion whenever certain buried information is approached. In the Brint/Adam interchange there is a hint of a theme that Cormier was to explore more thoroughly in After the First Death:. "Adam comes to him completely innocent in his amnesia, and Brint corrupts that. That's what evil is, the destruction of innocence." Although Cormier emphasizes Brint's machinelike quality by never giving us any description or background, he claims he has a home life in mind for him. "I picture Brint in a two-car garage, a family, belongs to the Elks…. He hasthis job in an agency where he's got to keep questioning all these people, but at night he leaves the area and goes home and has a regular life…."Somehow the idea of Brint presiding over a sub-urban household seems like part of the Number. Has Cormier forgotten that Brint is instantly available to Adam in the night? Obviously he sleeps nearby in the hospital, probably in a spartan room where he hangs his impeccable suit neatly in the closet. Then he lies rigidly on a narrow cot all night without rumpling the covers, stretched out on his back with folded arms. He does not allow himself to dream.

At a crucial point in the narrative, Brint lays out some priorities. "Permit me to summarize. The first landmark was that day in the woods with the dog. The second landmark was that call from Amy." The Dog, as both symbol and event, recurs often in Adam's narrative. In the first chapter, the very thought of "all the dogs that would attack me on the way to Rutterburg, Vermont," almost keeps him from setting out on the journey. He keeps an eye out for dogs when he does get on the road, and sure enough, soon he is threatened by one. As soon as we know that the bike trip is unreal, it is clear that this is a dream dog. The breed is German shepherd, a kind of animal associated with official power, police, Nazis. He is black, and, like Brint, he looks at Adam silently "with eyes like marbles." And, contrary to the normal behavior of dogs, he is guarding an empty house where there is no owner to defend. As in a dream, the direct attack is deflected to the tires. The beast tries "to topple the bike, send it askew and have me crashing to the roadway, his victim," just as Brint with his persistent questions tries to topple the delicate structure of defense that allows Adam to delude himself with the imaginary escape of the trip to Rutterburg. Even when Adam has eluded this animal, he has a prophetic feeling "that the dog will pursue me forever."

In the tape immediately following, Adam offers a startling remark. "Maybe the dog is a clue," he says tentatively. It sounds as if he is referring to the dog he has just escaped in the preceding chapter. Is this a link finally between the two separate narrative streams? But the idea is aborted as soon as Adam clarifies his statement: "I thought of the dog when I looked out this morning and saw a dog on the grass." Brint assumes that he is talking about Silver, the dog that experienced readers know is kept on the hospital grounds, and that Adam has been wary of as he returned to reality from the end of his trip. But Silver is the third dog evoked in this conversation, not the second. The dog Adam is recalling is the animal that attacked his father in the woods, a dog that first-time readers have not yet met, except through Adam's fears. Here Cormier achieves an extraordinary effect. The question of which dog is reflection and which dog is real becomes multiplied and confused, and the image is of dogs, single and several, reflected endlessly in a trick mirror. This moment plants a subliminal suggestion that the three strands of narrative are one story, returning to the now double meaning of Adam's casual "Maybe the dog is a clue."

The dog in the woods is, of course, the central dog. This episode has a surreal tone, although it is part of the memories retrieved by Brint's questioning, and therefore true. The battle of the father and the dog is unnecessary to the story line, strictly speaking, but as a metaphor it is a compelling sidetrip for Cormier. The key is Adam's description of the growling dog: "the way it stood there, implacable, blocking their path. There was something threatening about the dog, a sense that the rules didn't apply, like encountering a crazy person and realizing that anything could happen, anything was possible." Implacable, no appeal, like the forces that have trapped Adam—and in memory he savors his father's courage in battle and his victory.

And finally, it is a dog that brings the whole complex narrative structure down to one focus. As Adam returns sadly and quietly from his long trip, he wheels through the grounds of "the hospital" and is met by a kindly doctor. Has he at last broken free and come to a safe place? But as soon as he meets Silver in the hall, the momentary hope is blasted. We have seen Silver before, through the window of Brint's office, and we know now without a doubt that Adam has never left the place of interrogation.

Brint's second landmark is the call from Amy. The reader, like Brint, suspects that there was more to this incident than met Adam's ear. "Was Amy part of the conspiracy?" is a frequent question in Cormier's mail. The letter writers wonder shrewdly if she was prompted by the enemy to probe Adam's past, or if perhaps the name "Hertz" is meant to suggest that she "hurts" him. This Cormier denies emphatically. Amy is innocent and, as Adam wished, quite separate from the structure of intrigue, and the reason she is no longer there after three years is not that the enemy got her, but simply that her family moved away. Actually, Amy is the opposite of hurtful to Adam. She, as he says, "brought brightness and gaiety to his life." Cormier introduced her out of compassion for his protagonist: "I was conscious that Adam was leading a very drab life—his father a shadow, his mother withdrawn, and he was introverted—and I thought, this is getting pretty dull. So I introduced her to liven up the book, to give him a little love and affection, and, of course, instantly I fell in love with her." As Cormier's female characters often do, Amy led her creator pages and pages out of the way into episodes that had to be discarded later.

Amy, with her quick imagination, her antic sense of humor, her tender toughness and her nonchalance, is truly a charming creation. But what lies behind that toughness? Does her mother's preoccupation with committee work have something to do with it? We see her only through Adam's adoring eyes, but actually all is not well with Amy's soul. Amy, like Adam, is an outsider, a loner. Her Numbers have more than a little anger in them; they are not funny to the victims. Sometimes they have a strained quality, like the caper in the church parking lot, or depend for their effect on an enigmatic quirk of thought, like the cartful of baby-food jars left in front of the Kotex display in the supermarket. She really needs Adam to laugh with her. There is nobody else in the audience.

To Adam, the Numbers are "heady and hilarious but somehow terrible." To defy authority is foreign to his nature. But through his participation in the Numbers he gains the courage to investigate the mysteries about his past. "I, too, am capable of mischief," he thinks as he eavesdrops on his father and Mr. Grey. Thoughts of Amy give him courage on the bike ride, too. "What the hell, as Amy would say," he tells himself. Her last real words to Adam are a casual "Call me," and throughout his eternal bike rides he tries. Or thinks he tries. He makes excuses, or he calls at the wrong time, or he hangs up because the wise guys are approaching. He really knows that after three years Amy Hertz has disappeared from his life, and there is no comfort to be found at 537-3331. When he does finally make the connection with that number the Number is over, and it is the beginning of the end of his illusion.

Adam is to some extent based on Cormier himself as a boy. Not only his fears and phobias and migraines, but his personality and ambitions recall Cormier at fourteen. He is shy and book-loving, and home is a warm, safe retreat from a hostile world where wise guys lie in wait at every corner. Like Jerry in The Chocolate War, he knows only too well the scenario that begins "You lookin' for trouble?" Cormier betrayed in the operating room is vividly evoked when Adam says, "I don't like to be confined or held down. My instinct, then, is to get up on my feet, flailing my arms at anything that might try to hold me down, confine me." When Adam explains the writer inherent in his attitude toward life, it is also the young Cormier speaking: "Anyway, his terrible shyness, his inability to feel at ease with people, had nothing to do with his mother. He felt it was his basic character; he preferred reading a book or listening to old jazz records in his bedroom than going to dances or hanging around downtown with the other kids. Even in the fourth or fifth grade, he had stayed on the outskirts of the school-yard watching the other kids playing the games—Kick the Can was a big thing in the fourth grade—anyway, he had never felt left out: it was his choice. To be a witness, to observe, to let the events be recorded within himself on some personal film in some secret compartment no one knew about, except him. It was only later, in the eighth grade, when he knew irrevocably that he wanted to be a writer, that he realized he had stored up all his observations, all his emotions, for that purpose." And there is poignance for Cormier in the closeness and deep affection Adam feels for his parents, especially the warm glow of love at the last supper at the Red Mill—just before his father's death.

Between creator and creation there is an ironic contrast in one respect. "I'm not built for subterfuge and deception," says Adam. It is this quality that makes him a too-perfect subject for interrogation. Because he is so guileless, they—who are so complex in evil that they cannot comprehend simple honesty—persist in thinking he must be hiding something. Again and again he willingly turns the pockets of his mind inside out for them, but they still suspect he has something up his sleeve. It occurs to him to hold back, but he always ends by telling all.

His resistance has been channeled in other directions. The fantasy bike ride is Adam's gesture of defiance in the face of the Implacable. This explains the fierce intensity of his determination to make the journey "for my father," and the inevitability he feels in the beginning about his decision to go—"I knew I would go the way you know a stone will drop to the ground if you release it from your hand." Like Jerry, his gesture is stubborn and half-aware, not the grand, controlled action of a hero. "I am a coward, really," he admits, but in the refrain "I keep pedaling" there is persistent courage. Adam must repeatedly overcome obstacles and break through his fears, but each time he does he can soar for a moment and he finds new hope and strength.

As in dreams real emotions are translated into fantasy people and events, so as the bike ride progresses Adam's hidden awareness of the menace all around him begins to come to the forefront of his mind and take on personification, shape, and form as Whipper and the wise guys, as Fat Arthur and Junior Varney, as snarling dogs and the terrible ferocious vomit-pink car with the grinning grille. Meanwhile in the interrogations he is bringing to consciousness memories that bleed their terror into his secret life of the mind so that he is less and less able to sustain the fantasy. As he approaches the final truth, his newly discovered knowledge of the amount of time that has passed intrudes into the dream in a collision of logics. When he gets to the motel where he and his parents spent a safe night "last summer" he finds it "feels as if it has been neglected for years and years." The effect is eerily disorienting. One last time he tries to call Amy, but the gruff man on the phone and his own mind tell him she is gone; he is no longer able to delude himself with hopes of her comfort or with the defiant illusion of escape. He wants to wake up—"I would give anything to be folded into bed, the pills working their magic, soothing me"—and in a moment he does. The dream begins to smear and waver like the woman's face through the wet wind shield. Everything slows down; sounds are distorted, like a movie in a disintegrating projector. The darkness gathers him. Yet still—on a first reading—still we believe this is reality.

Like Amy, Cormier "always withholds information about the Numbers until the last possible moment, stretching out the drama." Even here at the end, there is one last tiny gleam of false hope. We think Adam has arrived in Rutterburg at last. Then he turns the corner and sees the hospital, and as he greets one by one the people from his fantasy the shattering truth crashes down. For the first time he sings the last verse of "The Farmer in the Dell." The cheese stands alone, and he is the cheese.

The final tape, with its cold, bureaucratic verdict, has been the subject of much speculation. With a little study, a key can be puzzled out:

Subject A—Adam

Personnel #2222—Thompson, or Grey

File Data 865-01—the record of Adam's father's testimony and subsequent official events related to it,

OZK Series—the interrogation tapes between Adam and Brint

Department 1-R—the government agency to which Adam's father testified

Tape Series ORT, UDW—the tapes of Adam's two previous interrogations

Witness #559-6—Adam's father

Policy 979—a rule that "does not currently allow termination procedures by Department 1-R"

And Department l-R, notice, is the agency to whom Adam's father gave his witness, presumably the good guys, but it is they who have imprisoned Adam, and they who are being asked to "obliterate" him. Who, then, are the Adversaries? And Grey? Up to now, it has seemed that it was Grey's legs that Adam saw as he lay on the ground after the crash, but was that just because that person wore gray pants? And Grey, remember, did not "necessarily" wear gray clothes.

Even Cormier's own words from the answer sheet he mails to questioners do not completely clear up the ambiguity: "Grey was not part of the syndicate. He was not a double agent in the usual sense, although he double-crossed Adam's father, setting him up for the syndicate and the accident. He was present at the scene to clean up afterward, but hadn't counted on Adam's survival—an embarrassment to the agency." So whose side is he on? In terms of Adam's future, it matters not at all. As Anne MacLeod puts it, "the two systems are equally impersonal, and equally dangerous to the human being caught between them. What matters to the organization—either organization—is its own survival, not Adam's." In the third chapter the old man at the gas station has asked Adam, "Do you know who the bad guys are?" He doesn't and neither do we. What is so overwhelming here is not just that evil is powerful, but that the good guys and the bad guys turn out to be—probably—indistinguishable. It is not a matter of good against evil, but of the cheese standing alone against everything, his whole world revealed at last as evil. Where now is Cormier's imperative for collective good? There is nobody left to come to his rescue. This is not a metaphor. MacLeod says, "This stark tale comments directly on the real world of government, organized crime, large-scale bureaucracy, the apparatus of control, secrecy, betrayal, and all the other commonplaces of contemporary political life." We could all be the cheese.

"A magnificent accomplishment," said Hornbook. "Beside it, most books for the young seem as insubstantial as candyfloss," said the Times Literary Supplement. "The secret, revealed at the end, explodes like an H-bomb," said Publishers Weekly. "A masterpiece," said West Coast Review of Books. The New York Times Book Review and the Young Adult Services Division of the American Library Association both included it on their respective lists of best books of the year for young people. But Newgate Callendar wondered in the New York Times if the book might turn out to be "above the heads of most teen-agers." Cormier, too, was afraid that he was in danger of losing his newfound young adult audience.

The book had begun as a time-filler. "Sometimes when there's nothing that's compelling, I do exercises. So I put a boy on a bike and had him take off on a Wednesday morning with a box on his bike. Then right away I wondered, what's he doing out of school on a Wednesday morning, where's he going, what's in the package? … I started to give him a lot of my own fears, phobias… And I wrote virtually all of the bike part without knowing where it was going." For a while he searched for a second level among religious themes of pilgrimage, the Stations of the Cross, death and resurrection. Then one day, "across my desk at the newspaper … came this thing about the Witness Relocation Program. This was at a time when very little was known about it." He began to wonder about the hardships of giving up a past, and "then it struck me, … how much harder for a teen, who doesn't even know who he is yet!" He knew he had found his second level. He went back to the bike ride to make it fit. The creation of I Am the Cheese was a very intense experience for him. "During the time I was writing the book, no one saw any part of it. I felt like the mad doctor in a laboratory, because I didn't think it would ever work, yet I felt compelled to write it. It was coming out at breakneck speed." "I still picture Adam riding that bike around the institution grounds, as real now as the day I discovered him."

To those who wonder if there have been political repercussions Cormier says, "I know it's critical of government, yet I think the strength of our government is that you can be critical of it, because there are so many good things about it, like the very fact that I can write this book." "Believe me, if we did not have a good government, I might have been jailed or my book censored before it ever hit the stores."

Or perhaps the CIA and the Mafia don't read young adult literature.

Source: Patricia J. Campbell, "I Am the Cheese," in Presenting Robert Cormier, Dell Publishing, 1985, pp. 80–95.


Bell, Robert, Review of I Am the Cheese, in the School Librarian, September 1978, p. 281.

DeLuca, Geraldine, and Roni Natov, "An Interview with Robert Cormier," in the Lion and the Unicorn, Vol. 2, No. 2, Fall 1978, pp. 125–26.

Heins, Paul, Review of I Am the Cheese, in the Horn Book Magazine, August 1977, pp. 427–28.

Lukens, Rebecca, "From Salinger to Cormier: Disillusionment to Despair in Thirty Years," in Webs and Wardrobes, edited by Joseph O'Beirne Milner and Lucy Floyd Morcock Milner, University Press of America, 1987, p. 13.

Sutton, Roger, "The Critical Myth: Realistic YA Novels," in School Library Journal, November 1982, p. 35.

Further Reading

Keeley, Jennifer, Understanding "I Am the Cheese," Lucent Books, 2001.

Part of Lucent's Understanding Great Literature series, this volume is geared toward a younger audience than the Twayne volumes. This book includes an illustrated biography, a plot summary, character sketches, analysis, excerpts from reviews, and an annotated bibliography.

Nodelman, Perry, "Robert Cormier Does a Number," in Children's Literature in Education, Summer 1983, pp. 94–103.

Nodelman offers a reader-response analysis of I Am the Cheese, tracing his own reactions to unfolding elements in the novel. He shows how Cormier intentionally tricks the reader into misinterpreting what is going on until the horrible truth is revealed at the end.

Silvey, Anita, "An Interview with Robert Cormier," in the Horn Book Magazine, March/April 1985, pp. 145–55, and May/June 1985, pp. 289–96.

Spread over two issues, much of this interview focuses on Cormier's fifth young adult novel, which is Beyond the Chocolate War (1985). Along the way, it offers a detailed look at Cormier's writing process and includes reproductions of several manuscript pages showing Cormier's editing and revising marks.

Sutton, Roger, "Kind of a Funny Dichotomy: A Conversation with Robert Cormier," in School Library Journal, June 1991, pp. 28–33.

This interview was conducted soon after Cormier was announced as the winner of the third Margaret A. Edwards Award for young adult authors. Cormier discusses the contrast between the pessimism in his books and the optimism that was a cornerstone of his own life, and he explains how his Catholic faith shaped his world view.