As the novel opens, Gene Forrester returns to Devon, the New Hampshire boarding school he attended during World War II. Gene has not seen Devon for 15 years, and so he notices the ways in which the school has changed since he was a student there. Strangely, the school seems newer, but perhaps, he thinks, the buildings are just better taken care of now that the war is over.
Gene walks through the campus on a bleak, rainy November afternoon, revisiting the buildings and fields he remembers—and especially two places he recalls as “fearful sites.” At the First Academic Building, he enters the foyer to look closely at the white marble steps. Then he trudges across the playing fields to the river in search of a particular tree and finally recognizes it by its long limb over the water and the scars on its trunk. The tree, he thinks, is smaller than he remembers. The chapter section ends with Gene heading back to shelter through the rain.
The second section opens during the summer of 1942 when Gene is 16. He is attending a special Summer Session at Devon, designed to speed up education to prepare the boys for the military draft in their senior year.
Gene stands at the same tree with his best friend and roommate, Phineas (nicknamed Finny), and three other boys, Elwin Lepellier (Leper), Chet Douglass, and Bobby Zane. The tree seems enormous to Gene, but Finny suddenly decides to climb it and jump into the river, just like the Devon 17 year olds, who are training for military service. Finny jumps and dares Gene to follow. Against his better judgment, Gene climbs the tree and also jumps, but the three others refuse. .
The shared danger of jumping brings Finny and Gene closer. While the rest of the boys hurry ahead at the sound of the bell for dinner, the roommates playfully wrestle until they are late for the meal. They slip into the dormitory, where they read their English assignments and play their radio (against school rules), until it is time for bed.
The morning after the boys first jump from the tree, Mr. Prud’homme, a substitute Master for the summer, scolds Gene and Finny for missing dinner. Finny tells Mr. Prud’homme that they were late because they were jumping out of the tree to prepare for military service—a far-fetched excuse he weaves into a long, funny explanation. Finny’s friendly chatter c...
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...e he prefers. Gene explains that he is planning to join the Navy in order to avoid being drafted into the infantry, while Brinker, too, has made a careful choice, deciding on the relative safety of the Coast Guard. This disgusts Mr. Hadley, who urges them to think about how their military service will sound when they talk about it in the future. The safest choice may not be the wisest choice in the long run, he explains.
Afterward, Brinker complains of his father’s hearty enthusiasm for war service, especially since the older generation will not face any risk in the war that Brinker insists they caused. Brinker’s thinking reminds Gene of Finny’s theory about the fake-war conspiracy of “fat old men.” But for himself, Gene decides that the war arose from something “ignorant” within humanity itself.
As Gene empties his locker to leave Devon for military service, he thinks of Finny and their friendship, which still remains a vital part of his life. Later, from his adult perspective, Gene believes that his war actually ended before he ever entered military service. He sees now that he killed his “enemy” at Devon, while Finny, always unique, never saw anyone or anything as his enemy.
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