A Separate Peace tells the story of a sixteen-year-old boy at boarding school in New Hampshire during World War II, and the mixed feelings of admiration and jealousy he harbors for his best friend and roommate. (Things get messy pretty fast, as you might expect from a bunch of ill-supervised adolescents.) Published in 1959, the novel is the first from author John Knowles, who would follow his breakout success with many more novels, short stories, and essays, including a sequel of sorts, Peace Breaks Out. Still, nothing ever topped Knowles's debut; A Separate Peace remains his most popular and well-known work. Just ask any of the high school students who have read it in class.
Speaking of English class, Knowles seems to have followed that old English teacher's adage: write what you know. Like the main character and narrator of A Separate Peace, Knowles was born in the South (West Virginia) and during World War II attended boarding school in New Hampshire, at Phillips Exeter Academy. His descriptions of the fictional "Devon school" in A Separate Peace are largely based, physically, on the Exeter campus. (Yes, those marble stairs are still there. Yes, they're still very hard.) Even parts of the plot – like the jumping out of the tree gig, or the character of Phineas – came from Knowles's experiences as a student. (So just think: someday you could write a novel that 1) stands as one hallmark of great modern American literature, and 2) embarrasses the heck out of your high school friends.)
You know all those stories you see on the news about overzealous soccer moms, irate hockey dads, referees that got beat-up, and cheerleaders with not-so-accidentally twisted ankles? Jealousy makes people do crazy things, especially when it comes to athletics. Now, if you've ever competed in ANYTHING, you know that particular feeling well. It's an odd combination of admiration and resentment. One minute you're worshipping at the feet of your hero-of-the-week, and the next you're eyeing a baseball bat with less-than-benevolent intentions.
What is it that makes us want to win so badly, even at the most trivial of tasks? You know, like that time you were finger-painting with the kids from down the street and entire jar of black paint just happened to spill on their Picasso-like rendition of King Kong? Competition is supposed to be healthy, but where do you draw a line between benign rivalry and a referee with a black eye?
Fortunately, A Separate Peace helps in this grand debate by establishing quite clearly that knocking your best friend out of a tree is on the wrong side of that line, and you'd best not be crossing into uber-rivalry territory any time soon, lest in the process you lose your sense of personal identity and discover all the atrocities of war and the human condition.