Check out the BBC Bitesize website at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/gcsebitesize/english_literature/proseheroes/
Robert Cormier explores the dark side of human nature in many of his novels for teenagers. What makes his treatment of this theme so effective, thought-provoking and, at times, chilling is his belief that evil is often to be found in the most unlikely of places. Consequently, whilst his heroes are often lonely and emotionally vulnerable teenagers, his ‘evil’ characters are either extraordinarily charming or so ordinary as to be almost invisible.
In “Heroes”, Larry LaSalle falls into the former category. His “Fred Astaire” walk and “movie-star smile” are the perfect disguise for hiding his dark secret: his weakness for “sweet young things”.
In a series of flashbacks, Francis Cassavant, the teenage narrator of the novel, tells of how, to the young people of Frenchtown, Larry LaSalle was a “hero”. He not only gave them a place to be themselves when he opened up the Recreation Centre (the Wreck Centre, as they called it) but also gave them a sense of pride in themselves and helped them discover their hidden potential. Even the school bullies were “reformed” under his influence – at least temporarily.
At fifteen, Francis (an orphan living with his uncle) was shy, withdrawn, and unable to speak to Nicole, the girl he had worshipped since she had arrived at his school when they were both thirteen. It was Larry who gave Francis the courage to approach Nicole by encouraging him at table tennis, helping him to become a champion at the sport and thus boosting his confidence.
Nicole and Francis were special to Larry and Larry, in turn, was a hero not just to them but to all the town’s children long before he earned a Silver Star for his heroic actions in the South Pacific during World War II.
However, in the present, the now eighteen-year-old Francis, his face badly disfigured as a result of throwing himself on a grenade apparently in a bid to protect his fellow soldiers, has returned to Frenchtown on a “mission”. That “mission” is to kill Larry LaSalle. With this in mind, the reader is then alert to the subtle early warning signs from Cormier that Larry is not all he seems; that beneath the smile and the glamour lies a dark purpose. Thus, whilst the townspeople think little of the rumours that he had “gotten into trouble in New York City” it arouses the reader’s suspicions, as does the foreshadowing of tragedy to come in the ill-fated Wreck Centre.
It is not until halfway through the novel that Francis reveals the nature of Larry’s crime and with it the dark side of this outwardly charming man. During his triumphant wartime return to Frenchtown as a Silver Star recipient, Larry rapes Nicole and, with this single act of violence and betrayal, ruins Nicole and Francis’ future.
Yet it is only when Francis finally tracks down Larry towards the end of the novel that the depth of Larry’s evil is revealed. Confronted by Francis, Larry is unrepentant. Shockingly, he regards what he did as simply a weakness.
Moreover, as he claims that we all “love our sins” and he cannot help loving “the sweet young things”, it becomes chillingly clear that Nicole was not his only victim. This man, trusted and worshipped by so many children, has betrayed them horribly over and over again. This then is the nature of the “trouble” in New York.
“Does that one sin of mine wipe away all the good things?” he asks.
It is a question not only aimed at Francis but at the reader too.
However, the reader is not taken in by Larry. The so-called “good things” were simply a means to an end. Cormier has hinted all along, albeit in a subtle manner, that even when Larry seemed to be inspiring the children he was actually imposing his will upon them. He made a musical star out of a bully but at school the bully still terrorised the other children: he told Nicole she would be a great dancer but later as she was picking up the pieces of her life she realised that had been his dream not hers.
Still in control, as he was in the Wreck Centre, Larry sends Francis away, his mission unfulfilled. As Francis is leaving the tenement building, he hears a gunshot. Larry has killed himself, not out of guilt or shame or remorse for his crime but out of self-pity. Ravaged by the effects of war he is no longer the physically attractive, glamorous young man who dazzled the townspeople of Frenchtown and their children. He can never again attract and ensnare the “sweet young things”. His ruined outward appearance now more accurately reflects his ruined soul and dark nature.
Francis, on the other hand, is able to look to the future, despite his ruined face, for he is forgiven by Nicole for his “crime” of failing to protect her and can leave the past where it belongs.
It is the complex nature of Cormier’s characters, all of them flawed, and his insightful exploration of the dark side of the human psyche that makes this novel so memorable.
Questions to think about:
What are the main themes in Heroes and how are they developed? What incidents and / or quotes would you refer to if you were to write an essay on a theme?
Which incidents / chapters would you consider to be the most important in the novel and why?
Is Larry a hero? Does the good that he does make up for his love of ‘the sweet young things’?
Is Francis a hero? What is Cormier’s definition of a hero in the novel and how far do you agree with him?
How important are the various settings of the novel? What do they contribute to the novel in terms of dramatic impact, theme etc.?
Useful quotes from Heroes
WAR – We didn’t think of ourselves as soldiers but only two Frenchtown boys in uniform. And I had not yet killed anybody.
…not like the war movies at the Plymouth, nobody displaying heroics or bravado.
…my bursts of gunfire killed the soldiers quickly…I saw how young they were, boys with apple cheeks, too young to shave. Like me.
FOR THE VETERANS – this is the pause between one life and another
Soldiers were dying with honour on battlefields all over the world. Noble deaths. The deaths of heroes. How could I die by leaping from a steeple?
HERO? – I am not a hero.
I am not the hero he thinks I am, not like the other veterans here in the St Jude Club.
There are lots of medals for outstanding service but only the Silver Star is for heroism.
CHAPTER 8 – Arthur Rivier – ‘Nobody talks about the war … I want to talk about it, my war … The scared war…We weren’t heroes. We were only there…’
I had always wanted to be a hero, like Larry LaSalle and all the others, but had been a fake all along. And now I am tired of the deception and have to rid myself of the fakery…’I am not a hero,’ I tell him… ‘I went to war because I wanted to die.’
‘I don’t know what a hero is any more, Nicole…’
‘Write about it, Francis. Maybe you can find the answer that way.’
I think of my old platoon…of Enrico…of Arthur Rivier…Scared kids, not born to fight and kill. Who were not only there but who stayed, did not run away, fought the good war. And never talk about it. And didn’t receive a Silver Star. But heroes, anyway. The real heroes.
APPEARANCE v REALITY (Identity / Disguise) – I have no face.
… the scarf and the bandage were working in two ways: not only to hide the ugliness of what used to be my face, but to hide my identity.
I feel like a spy in disguise as I walk the streets of Frenchtown.
Now in Frenchtown, my face is healing…When I study myself in the mirror, I don’t see me any more but a stranger slowly taking shape.
What matters is hiding my face from others, not only to save them the shock of seeing a face in disrepair but so that they won’t identify little Francis Cassavant later on, after I have carried out my mission.
I am like the Hunchback of Notre Dame, my face like a gargoyle and the duffel bag like a lump on my back.
NICOLE (LOVE, BETRAYAL AND FORGIVENESS)– I knelt there like a knight at her feet, her sword having touched my shoulder. I silently pledged her my love and loyalty for ever.
‘Don’t go,’ Nicole whispered into my ear. But Larry LaSalle had told me to go.
‘I’ve got to go,’ I told her. ‘You and Larry stay. One last dance…’ The words sounded false as I said them and I realized they were Larry’s words, not mine.
I recognised in her eyes what I could not deny: betrayal. My betrayal of her in her eyes.
‘You didn’t do anything.’ The accusation in her voice was worse than the harshness … ‘Why didn’t you do something?…’
NICOLE TO FRANCIS – ‘…You weren’t to blame for what happened. I realised that later…I know what he was. For a while there he made me feel special…Made me think I was a ballerina. Now I’m starting to find out what I am, who I really am…’
She looks at me with affection. But affection is not love. I knew all the time we were talking that we were filling up the empty spaces between us with words. I knew I had lost her, had lost her a long time ago.
LARRY (BETRAYAL, APPEARANCE v REALITY) And, finally, I pray for Larry LaSalle … Then I am filled with guilt and shame, knowing that I have just prayed for the man I am going to kill.
LARRY – “a touch of Fred Astaire in his walk”; “broad shoulders of an athlete and the narrow hips of a dancer”; “But he was most of all a teacher.”
‘You are all stars,’ Larry LaSalle always told us.
Rumours told us that Larry LaSalle had also been a star.
…there were dark hints that he had ‘gotten into trouble’ in New York City.
Dazzled by his talent and his energy, none of us dwelt on the rumours. In fact, the air of mystery that surrounded him added to his glamour.
He tamed the notorious schoolyard bully … ‘But he still beats up kids in the schoolyard,’ Joey LeBlanc observed.
‘My hero from the war,’ Joey LeBlanc called out, clowning, of course, but saying what we all thought. Larry was our war hero, yes, but he had been a hero to us long before he went to war.
‘I’m not supposed to play favourites, Francis, but you and Nicole are special to me.’
We always did what Larry LaSalle told us to do. Always carried out his slightest wish.
Larry LaSalle has returned to Frenchtown. And I know where to find him.
The gun is like a tumour on my thigh.
What’s one more death after the others in the villages and fields of France? The innocent faces of two young Germans appear in my mind. But Larry LaSalle is not innocent.
He is pale, eyes sunken into the sockets …and he seems fragile now, as if caught in an old photograph that has faded and yellowed with age.
‘Oh, Francis…You couldn’t have stopped me…You were just a child.’
‘The sweet young things…Even their heat is sweet…’
‘Everybody sins, Francis. The terrible thing is that we love our sins. We love the thing that makes us evil. I love the sweet young things.’
‘Does that one sin of mine wipe away all the good things?’
‘No more dancing for me, Francis. No more sweet young things. No more anything…If I want one thing, it would be to have you look at me again the way you did at the Wreck Centre … But it’s too late, isn’t it?’
THE WRECK CENTRE – “a bad luck place”; “A place of doom.”
Nicole Renard’s visits to the Wreck Centre made my life there complete.
That’s why Joey LeBlanc angered me when he said he could feel that old doom hanging over the place …poor Joey LeBlanc…had been right, after all.
Larry LaSalle’s enlistment caused the Wreck Centre to close for what people now called ‘the duration’.
THE ENDING – HOPE?
(The novel ends with:
Maybe …I should write about them
Maybe I should buy a typewriter
Maybe I should…
I should …
I think … And then Francis heads off to catch a train.
Intermediate 2 Model Essay Exercise
Choose a novel or short story in which the lives of characters are disrupted for good or for bad by some person or force.
By close reference to more than one scene in the story, show how your attitude to this disruptive element developed in the course of the narrative.
This question is asking you to focus on the disruption caused to the lives of particular characters by either a ‘person or force.’ This question lends itself to Heroes as we know that the actions of Larry LaSalle have such a profoundly negative effect on Francis and Nicole.
There is another element to this question as well in that it asks you to ‘show how your attitude [… ] developed in the course of the narrative.’ To some extent this might seem like the trickier part of the question.
The outwardly charming Larry LaSalle has a profoundly negative impact on the characters Nicole and Francis in Cormier’s novel, ‘Heroes’. After Larry rapes Nicole the lives of these two characters are severely disrupted. The author’s choice of narrative structure and his focus on the themes of betrayal and confrontation create both a sense of suspense and tension, which affect and alter the reader’s attitude as the narrative progresses.
The novel is written in first person and it is narrated through the main character, Francis Cassavant. This is significant as this gives us insight into the life and thoughts of Francis as the story is narrated from his perspective. However, although the author’s use of flashback is used to give the reader background details, this information is received at stages throughout the novel so that the reader is kept in suspense. Despite this, there are hints of what is to come from the start.
The author’s use of symbolism provides an example of this. It is significant that the reader does not immediately know what has happened to Francis. Francis wears a scarf because he wants to maintain his anonymity at the beginning of the novel: (quotation)
This scarf is arguably symbolic of both Francis’s explicit desire to hide his face from the outside world and an implicit desire to hide from himself. The use of flashbacks help to add to this sense of Francis returning to his past in stages as he finds it difficult to confront his past.
Initially, this would seem a direct consequence of Francis’ time at war. However, on further reading it becomes clear that, in fact, this is a consequence of much earlier actions, which lead Francis to enlist in the first place. It is a result of the life-shattering actions of Larry LaSalle that so devastated both Francis and Nicole’s lives.
The use of flashbacks allow the reader to get a sense of the charisma of Larry LaSalle. The impression the reader is initially given of Larry is designed to be similar to that of the impressions of the ‘Wreck Centre’ children when they first knew Larry. (Quote and comment)
Despite the use of flashbacks, the plot continues to progress in present time on the basis of Francis’s mission. As it becomes clear what Larry has done to Nicole, so too does Francis’ mission. The motivation for Francis is conveyed through the theme of betrayal. Not only did Larry betray Nicole and Francis’ by breaking their trust and physically and emotionally harming them, but Francis also betrayed Nicole by not stopping Larry…
How did Larry make them feel special? How does this make his betrayal worse (all the more devastating)? What happened to Francis as a result (wanted to kill himself, etc)? What happened to Nicole as a result? How does this make the theme of confrontation so important? i.e. why must Francis confront Larry? What will this do for Francis?
Sample Intermediate 1 essay
Choose a novel or short story which has an important turning point that changes things for one of the characters.
Show how the story builds up to the turning point and say why it is so important for the character.
In the novel ‘Heroes’ by Robert Cormier it is tempting to see the part in the novel where Larry LaSalle assaults Nicole in the Wreck Centre as an important turning point. After all, this causes Francis to lie about his age and go to war at fifteen. However, the ‘important turning point’ actually comes near the end of the novel when Francis goes to Larry’s flat to confront him and to kill him for what he did to Nicole and to Francis that night in the Wreck Centre.
The whole of the novel has been building up to this meeting. In chapter one, Francis Cassavant, still only eighteen, has returned to his hometown, Frenchtown, on a ‘mission’ to kill Larry LaSalle. At this point we have no idea why.
Through a series of flashbacks we learn about Francis and his life before the war. Francis was shy and quiet. His parents were dead and he lived with his uncle. He had few friends and spent a lot of time reading. When he first met Nicole Renard he fell in love with her but was too shy to speak to her.
Then Larry LaSalle came back to Frenchtown and dazzled the children with his ‘movie star smile’ and ‘Fred Astaire walk’. He opened a recreation centre (the Wreck Centre) and involved all the local children. He made Francis a table-tennis champion and gave him the courage and self-esteem he had always lacked. That is what made Larry’s betrayal of Nicole and Francis so much more terrible.
When Larry sexually assaulted Nicole, Francis blamed himself for not protecting her. Nicole turned him away when he tried to speak to her and asked why he had not helped her. Francis contemplated suicide but instead joined up even though he was much too young. He was badly injured when he threw himself on a grenade and now has ‘no face’.
The turning point comes when Francis discovers that Larry has returned to Frenchtown. As Francis goes to Larry’s lodgings, he describes the gun he is carrying as a ‘tumour’ on his thigh.
Larry is no longer the dazzling star that he was. His good looks have gone and his legs have been wasted away with disease. Larry will no longer be able to charm the young people as he once did. He is surprised when Francis tells him he was there at the Wreck Centre when Larry attacked Nicole but he does not say he is sorry. He says he has a weakness for the ‘sweet young things’ meaning young girls like Nicole. We, like, Francis suspect that he has done this before to other girls. What is even more horrible is that Larry just sees this as a weakness and thinks that the good things he does make up for it.
Larry tells Francis to put away his gun. He says that he has thought about killing himself many times. When Francis is walking down the stairs from the flat he hears the sound of the shot as Larry kills himself.
Francis is now able to move on with his life. If he had killed Larry he almost certainly would have committed suicide as he intended from the start. Now he has been spared killing a man in cold blood. He can also see that the guilt was not his but Larry’s. Larry may have been a hero to his platoon in the war, and a hero to the children in the Wreck Centre but he preyed on young girls and felt no shame or guilt.
Francis is brave about his injuries and cares about other people. He is a much better person than Larry and he deserves to put the past behind him and get on with his life. Now that he has discovered the truth about Larry he has a chance to do that.