Gene feels a profound inner peace as he trains with Finny, and he sometimes finds it hard to believe truly in the widespread confusion of the war. To everyone’s surprise, Leper Lepellier, after watching a documentary about ski troops, enlists in January, which only makes the war seem even more unreal to Gene. Later, Brinker starts the running joke that Leper must be behind any Allied victory. Finny refuses to take part in these jokes, and as they come to dominate the conversation in the Butt Room, both he and Gene stop going there. He pulls Gene farther and farther away from his other friends until Gene spends all his time with him, training for the Olympics.
One day, Finny decides to stage a winter carnival and starts assigning tasks. Brinker organizes the transfer of equipment from the dormitory to a park on the river and has his mousy roommate, Brownie Perkins, guard several jugs of hard cider buried in the snow. The boys arrange a little ski jump, snow statues, and prizes, and Chet Douglass provides music on his trumpet. As the carnival begins, the other boys wrestle the cider away from Brinker at Finny’s prompting and break into anarchic carousing. Everyone seems intoxicated with cider and life itself, especially Finny, who performs a wild yet graceful dance on the prize table with his good leg. Finny announces the beginning of the carnival’s decathlon and has Gene demonstrate various feats of athleticism for the appreciative crowd. Amid the festivities, Brownie reappears from the dormitory with a telegram: Leper has written to Gene to say that he has “escaped” and that his safety depends on Gene coming at once to his “Christmas location.”
[I]f Leper was psycho . . . the army . . . had done it to him, and . . . all of us were on the brink of the army.
Gene immediately sets out for Leper’s “Christmas location,” meaning his home in Vermont. He takes a train and then a bus through the barren New England landscape and arrives in Leper’s town early the next morning. He walks the rest of the way through the snow to Leper’s house. All the while he refuses to admit to himself that Leper has deserted the army; he tries to convince himself that by “escape,” Leper has meant an escape from spies.
Leper stands at the window, beckoning Gene as he approaches, and then bustles him into the dining room. Leper tells Gene that he has, in fact, deserted; he did so because the army was planning to give him a Section Eight discharge for insanity, which he says would have prevented him from ever finding work or leading a normal life. Gene makes a few uncertain comments and Leper suddenly breaks down, insulting him. He then accuses Gene of knocking Finny out of the tree. Gene kicks Leper’s chair over. Leper’s mother rushes into the room, declaring that her son is ill and demanding to know why Gene would attack a sick person. Leper then invites Gene to stay for lunch, which he does out of guilt. At his mother’s suggestion, Leper goes for a walk with Gene after the meal. Leper suddenly begins sobbing and tells Gene of his odd hallucinations at training camp: officers’ faces turned into women’s faces, soldiers carrying detached limbs, and so on. Eventually, Gene cannot bear to listen to Leper any longer and runs away into the snowy fields.
Leper, who has been strictly a secondary character thus far, suddenly takes center stage in the novel, first by joining the army and then by deserting. Although Leper’s classmates react with surprise, his decision is quite understandable. The war is the great unknown for the students at Devon, one that they will all have to face at some point. Leper, who is the oldest boy in the class, will have to enter it sooner than anyone else. The film about the ski troops gives him a chance to enter the war and the unknown through something he knows well—skiing. His proactive decision to enlist also offers him a sense of control and empowerment that would be absent if he waited to be drafted into the service.
Leper’s decision affords the reader several insights into his classmates, as the boys react in telling ways. First, they respond with disbelief, and because they find the idea of Leper in the army so unimaginable, the war becomes to them more distant and alien than ever. Later, however, when they do begin to consider Leper’s enlistment as a possibility, they turn the issue into a joke. Led by Brinker, they mockingly envision Leper as a war hero. Gene himself notes that by talking and laughing about Leper’s heroics, he and his classmates are able to personalize the war. When they imagine one of their peers involved in grand historical events, the war suddenly seems more on their level, less intimidating; after all, if Leper can be a hero, then anyone can. Thus, the boys’ anxieties about wartime failure, about being “the Sad Sack, the outcast or the coward,” can be set aside.