Before there was Lois Lowry’s The Giver or M. T. Anderson’s Feed, there was Robert Cormier’s I Am the Cheese, a subversive classic that broke new ground for YA literature.
A boy’s search for his father becomes a desperate journey to unlock a secret past. But the past must not be remembered if the boy is to survive. As he searches for the truth that hovers at the edge of his mind, the boy—and readers—arrive at a shattering conclusion.
“An absorbing, even brilliant job. The book is assembled in mosaic fashion: a tiny chip here, a chip there. . . . Everything is related to something else; everything builds and builds to a fearsome climax. . . . [Cormier] has the knack of making horror out of the ordinary, as the masters of suspense know how to do.”—The New York Times Book Review
“A horrifying tale of government corruption, espionage, and counter espionage told by an innocent young victim. . . . The buildup of suspense is terrific.”—School Library Journal, starred review
An ALA Notable Children’s Book
A School Library Journal Best Book of the Year
A Horn Book Fanfare
A Library of Congress Children’s Book of the Year
A Colorado Blue Spruce Young Adult Book Award Nominee
About the Author
Robert Cormier (1925-2000) changed the face of young adult literature over the course of his illustrious career. His many books include The Chocolate War, I Am the Cheese, Fade, Tenderness, After the First Death, Heroes, Frenchtown Summer, and The Rag and Bone Shop. In 1991 he received the Margaret A. Edwards Award, honoring his lifetime contribution to writing for teens.
Date of Birth:January 17, 1925
Date of Death:November 2, 2000
Place of Birth:Leominster, Massachusetts
Place of Death:Leominster, Massachusetts
Education:Fitchburg State College
Read an Excerpt
I am riding the bicycle and I am on Route 31 in Monument, Massachusetts, on my way to Rutterburg, Vermont, and I'm pedaling furiously because this is an old-fashioned bike, no speeds, no fenders, only the warped tires and the brakes that don't always work and the handlebars with cracked rubber grips to steer with. A plain bike - the kind my father rode as a kid years ago. It's cold as I pedal along, the wind like a snake slithering up my sleeves and into my jacket and my pants legs, too. But I keep pedaling, I keep pedaling.
This is Mechanic Street in Monument, and to my right, high above on a hill, there's a hospital and I glance up at the place and I think of my father in Rutterburg, Vermont, and my pedaling accelerates. It's ten o'clock in the morning and it is October, not a Thomas Wolfe October of burning leaves and ghost winds but a rotten October, dreary, cold, damp with little sun and no warmth at all. Nobody reads Thomas Wolfe anymore, I guess, except my father and me. I did a book report on The Web and the Rock and Mr. Parker in English II regarded me with suspicion and gave me a B- instead of the usual A. But Mr. Parker and the school and all of that are behind me now and I pedal. Your legs do all the work on an old bike like this, but my legs feel good, strong, with staying power. I pass by a house with a white picket fence and I spot a little kid who's standing on the sidewalk and he watches me go by and I wave to him because he looks lonesome and he waves back.
I look over my shoulder but there's no one following.
At home, I didn't wave goodbye to anybody. I just left. Without fanfare. I didn't go to school. I didn't call anyone. I thought of Amy but I didn't call her. I woke up this morning and saw an edge of frost framing the window and I thought of my father and I thought of the cabinet downstairs in the den and I lay there, barely breathing, and then I got up and knew where I was going. But I stalled, I delayed. I didn't leave for two hours because I am a coward, really. I am afraid of a thousand things, a million. Like, is it possible to be claustrophobic and yet fear open spaces, too? I mean, elevators panic me. I stand in the upright coffin and my body oozes sweat and my heart pounds and this terrible feeling of suffocation threatens me and I wonder if the doors will ever open. But the next day, I was playing center field - I hate baseball but the school insists on one participating sport - anyway, I stood there with all that immensity of space around me in center field and I felt as though I'd be swept off the face of the planet, into space. I had to fight a desire to fling myself on the ground cling to the earth. And then there are dogs. I sat there in the house, thinking of all the dogs that would attack me on the way to Rutterburg, Vermont, and I told myself, This is crazy, I'm not going. But at the same time, I knew I would go. I knew I would go the way you know a stone will drop to the ground if you release it from your hand.
I went to the cabinet in the den and took out the gift for my father. I wrapped it in aluminum foil and then wrapped it again with newspaper, Scotch-taping it all securely. Then I went down to the cellar and got the pants and shoes and jacket, but it took me at least a half hour to find the cap. It would be cold on the road to Vermont and this cap is perfect, woolen, the kind that I could pull over my ears if the cold became a problem.
Then I raided my savings. I have plenty of money. I have thirty-five dollars and ninety-three cents. I have enough money to travel first class to Vermont, in the Greyhound bus that goes all the way to Montreal, but I know that I am going by bike to Rutterburg, Vermont. I don't want to be confined to a bus. I want the open road before me, I want to sail on the wind. The bike was waiting in the garage and that's how I wanted to go. By bike, by my own strength and power. For my father.
I looked at myself in the mirror before I left, the full-length mirror on the side of the closet door in my parents' bedroom upstairs. I inspected myself in the mirror, the crazy hat and the old jacket, and I knew that I looked ridiculous. But what the hell, as Amy says, philosophically.
I thought longingly of Amy. But she was at school and almost impossible to call. I could have faked it. I could have called the school and pretended that I was her father and asked to speak to her, saying that there was an emergency at home. Her father is editor of the Monument Times and always speaks with emergency in his voice, his sentences like headlines.
But I have to be in the mood to pull off a stunt like that - in fact, those kinds of stunts are Amy's specialty. And besides, my mind was on the road to Vermont. I love Amy Hertz. It's ridiculous that her name is Hertz - she's probably heard a thousand car-rental jokes and I have vowed never to make one. Anyway, I decided not to call her. Not until I'm away. I will call her on the way to Rutterburg, Vermont. And I will soothe myself by thinking of her and her Numbers and all the times she let me kiss her and hold her. But I didn't want to think about all that as I prepared for my journey.
I went to the kitchen and took out the bottle of pills from the cabinet and decided not to take one. I wanted to do this raw, without crutches, without aid, alone. I opened the bottle of pills and turned it over and let the pills fall out - they are capsules, actually, green and black - and I watched them disappear into the mouth of the garbage disposal. I felt strong and resolute.
I got the bike out of the garage and walked down the driveway, guiding the bike before I swung into the seat. I had my father's package in the basket above the front wheel. I was traveling light, with no provisions or extra clothing.
Finally, I leaped onto the bike, feeling reckless and courageous. At that moment, the sun came out, dazzling and brilliant: an omen of good fortune. I swung out into the street and a car howled its horn at me for straying too far into the roadway - and I wavered on the bicycle, the front wheel wobbling. I thought, This is ridiculous, this trip to Rutterburg. I almost turned back. But I didn't. I thought of my father and I started pedaling away, and I gained momentum and knew I would go, nothing would stop me, nothing.
And now I am leaving Monument and crossing the town line into Aswell. A sign by the side of the road says that the Aswell Rotary Club meets every Monday at noon. I have only gone four or five miles and my legs don't feel strong anymore. My legs are weary and my back sings with pain because I am out of condition. Frankly, I have never been in condition, which is a source of delight to Amy Hertz, who dislikes all kinds of physical exercise.
I keep pedaling despite the weariness and the pain. I am determined to go to Rutterburg. I suck in the cold air and it caresses my lungs. My forehead is damp with sweat and I pull the cap down over my ears. I have all those miles to go.
"Take it easy," I tell myself. "Take it easy. One mile at a time."
And suddenly there's a long hill slanting down before me and the bike picks up speed and my legs are whirling madly, without effort, the bike carried by the momentum, and I let myself join the wind, soaring over the road as I coast beautifully down into Aswell.
Reading Group Guide
In Robert Cormier's unforgettable novels, an individual often stands alone, fighting for what is rightor just to surviveagainst powerful, sinister, and sometimes evil people. His twisty, gripping stories explore some of the darker corners of the human psyche but always with a moral focus and a probing intelligence that compels readers to examine their own feelings and ethical beliefs. The questions that follow are intended to spur discussion and to provoke thoughtful readers to contemplate some of the issues of identity, character, emotion, and morality that make Cormier's books so compelling.