New to Me: I Am the Cheese

One of several YA classics written by the late Robert Cormier, I Am the Cheese is a tense psychological study.’  A young teenager named Adam starts on a bike ride from Massachusetts to Vermont.’  At the same time, Adam is being questioned by an unknown man about his personal history.’  What is the connection between these two stories?’  The reader is left to figure that out over the course of the novel as a creeping sense of unease develops.

I Am the Cheese
Robert Cormier
Published 1977

After a series of events that we only learn about later, Adam decides to visit his father.’  He will ride his bike from his home in Monument, Massachusetts to the hospital where his father is staying, in Rutterburg, Vermont.’  As he pedals, Adam faces challenges: the physical exhaustion, a menacing dog, bullies, and even the temporary theft of his bike.’  But he’s determined to get to Rutterburg–he has a present for his father.’  Intercutting the action of the bike ride is the static taped interviews of Adam, being conducted by a man called Brint.’  Adam has large gaps in his memory, gaps that he is trying to fill in.’  As he slowly recalls his own personal history, he doubts the intentions of Brint, the nature of the facility that he’s currently living in, and even what is real.’  The two storylines connect in a shocking way that casts the novel in a new light.

Having heard about I Am the Cheese for years, I was familiar with the plot twist in this work.’  Yet although I knew that the bike ride was a construct of Adam’s mind, it was still intriguing to follow along, to see the way the pieces of Adam’s current reality inspired his mental refuge.’  And while at first it’s the interview chapters that create suspicion and worry in the reader’s mind, by the end of the novel, the bike ride is equally disturbing.’  Perhaps it’s because Adam’s subconscious can no longer maintain the constructed reality and starts allowing his buried present to intrude.’  And seeing that happen, to a character we’ve been reading about for over a hundred and fifty pages, is unnerving and uncomfortable.’  That’s one of the great achievements of this novel: the way that you are drawn into Adam’s story, and are concerned about him, even though you know that he is a kind of unreliable narrator.

Another accomplishment by Cormier is the way there are two mysteries, only one of which is immediately visible.’  The story about Adam’s slow discovery of his family’s past is the obvious mystery.’  We see him find the small clues that create suspicion within Adam’s mind, the eventual reveal of the facts, and the way these facts give Adam a sense of freedom–only for that freedom to be taken away, for his life as he knew it to be ended.’  It’s a textbook mystery, yet due to the structure of the novel and to’  Adam’s shadowy present status, there is extra impact from this basic mystery.’  But more than that, it’s the overarching mystery that makes the reader hunt for clues.’  Why is Adam being questioned?’  How did he lose his memory?’  What will happen to him?’  At the end, when we learn the answers to all these questions, the reader is left shaken by the power of the human mind and by the cold-blooded nature of humans.

Despite being over thirty years old, I Am the Cheese is a novel that would still speak to today’s teens.’  It is one of the few YA classics that does not seem overly dated, and is in fact still fresh and compelling.’  I plan on recommending this novel to teens who are looking for psychological thrillers or mysteries, similar to Graham McNamee’s Acceleration or Nancy Werlin’s The Killer’s Cousin.’  And if you’ve had success in recommending this novel, please speak up!

Interesting trivia: in the 1983 film version, Robert Cormier plays Mr. Hertz, the father of Adam’s friend/love interest Amy.’  Thanks to IMDB for that bit of trivia–now I’m off to Netflix to see if it’s available there!

About Melissa Rabey

I'm a teen librarian for a library system in Maryland. I became a librarian because I love books, I love technology, and I wanted to connect people with those two things. I'm happy that I get to do all this and even more.
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  1. Melissa, don’t do it!! I, too, was so excited to find out that there was a film version of one of my favorite books. It’s HORRIBLE. I wanted to weep from disappointment horrible.

  2. There are actually two film versions. There’s a Canadian one which is, if anything, even worse than the better-known American version.

    For some reason no one has managed to make a decent film out of a Cormier book. Alas.

  3. Melissa, thanks so much for bringing focus to this amazing book. I remember reading it in 1993 — as a 13-year old — and, even then, knowing that it was an older book and literally felt the wind blast through me as I plowed through the book to its finish.

    As a teen, if I liked one book by an author, I tried to read every other work they had written, and also loved his most famous work: the deeply contested/challenged The Chocolate War. Don’t know if the 1988 film was any better than I Am the Cheese.

    Not sure how students would respond to me recommending I Am the Cheese nowadays, but I had a student today that said that she couldn’t put The Great Gatsby down, so there is hope. 🙂

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