Pros: wonderful narrative voice, historical setting, Shakespeare allusions, hilarious and moving
Cons: Holling's father is a very frustrating character
The year is 1967. Holling Hoodhood, a seventh-grader in Long Island, lives in a pristine house with his mother, a covert chain-smoker; his father, an architect with ruthless business principles; and his older sister, who dreams of running off to California to become a flower child. As he knows from the Walter Cronkite broadcasts that his father watches each evening, the Vietnam War is raging overseas, but to Holling, this is more of an abstraction than a pressing concern. More troubling to him is the question of what he ever did to make his teacher, Mrs. Baker, hate him.
Holling is the sometimes naïve, sometimes insightful but almost always endearing narrator of Gary Schmidt’s The Wednesday Wars, a 2007 mid-grade novel given Newbery Honor status. Mrs. Baker is a particular problem for him because every Wednesday, while half his class goes to Catechism and the other half to Hebrew school, he, the only Presbyterian in the seventh grade, must remain behind with his teacher. When the first couple months of his school year are marked by several unlikely disasters, it only adds fuel to his suspicion that she has formulated an elaborate plan to make him as miserable as possible. But when she introduces the subversive tactic of making him read Shakespeare instead of clapping erasers during their time together, Holling is sure he has the upper hand. She clearly intends to torture him with these musty tomes, but he actually is enjoying himself. Could her evil plot be failing?
The Wednesday Wars is a book that encompasses and transcends several subgenres within juvenile literature: the coming-of-age story, the historical novel, the inspirational teacher tale, the book framed by the reading of other books. The 264-page novel contains ten chapters, each covering one month in the school year, with particular focus on Wednesdays. Throughout the year, Holling immerses himself in several of Shakespeare’s plays: The Merchant of Venice, The Tempest, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing. He becomes entranced with the rhythm of Shakespeare’s words – particularly his colorful insults, of which “pied ninny” and “toads, beetles, bats” are among his favorites – and he begins to think more deeply about his own life and the world around him as a result of his reading.
Mrs. Baker is a stern, demanding teacher cut from the same cloth as Minerva McGonagall, the severe Transfiguration professor in the Harry Potter series. She will not hand anything to her students on a silver platter. Nonetheless, Holling begins to understand that there is a human being behind that strict façade, one as capable of both agony and ecstasy as he is. And while he may miss her subtle sense of humor at first, by the end of the year, the twinkle in her eye is easier for him to identify. While Holling’s primary focus is on how she relates to him, he does pick up on her interactions with other students, each of which reveals a bit more about her personality and values. Mostly, she refrains from telling Holling what to make of a particular play, allowing him to draw conclusions for himself, but when she does chime in with her own reflections, we truly get a glimpse of what makes her tick.
Schmidt skillfully weaves his tale in such a way that although the school, and particularly Holling’s classroom, always seem bustling, we never become overwhelmed with characters. He wisely focuses on just a few classmates. Meryl Lee Kowalski, whose father is Mr. Hoodhood’s primary business rival, has a fierce affection for Holling that often manifests itself as aggression. The relationship between these two is mostly comical for the first few chapters but eventually becomes one of the most poignant elements of the book. Danny Hupfer, a lively boy preparing for his bar mitzvah, is Holling’s closest friend, while Doug Swieteck is the class troublemaker who seems to be taking after his dangerously delinquent brother. Mai Thi Huong, a solemn orphan recently brought over from Vietnam by a Catholic Relief Agency, has little to say, but she brings the impact of the war home to Holling in a powerful way.
Along with Holling’s peers are several adults of note, most of them connected with the school. Mr. Guareschi, the principal, runs his school like a dictatorship. His administrative style is mostly cause for mockery, though his lack of concern for student welfare is galling. School board member Mrs. Sidman, traumatized by her encounters with the Swietecks, finds that they have prepared her well for the unexpected challenges that come her way. Mr. Petrelli is known for his laughable insistence upon personal relevance in history projects like “The California Gold Rush and You,” while the overzealous Coach Quatrini works Holling to the bone after he wins a spot on the varsity cross-country team in one of the funniest chapters. Lunchlady Mrs. Bigio, like Mrs. Baker, has a deeply personal connection to the war; unlike Mrs. Baker, this has a detrimental impact upon how she relates to certain students. Mr. Goldman, the jovial baker whose shop is near the school, helps Holling with one predicament but lands him in another one that will haunt him for months to come.
Finally, the behavior of Meryl Lee and Danny’s parents casts a revealing light upon Holling’s dad, who expects his son to take over his architectural firm and has no qualms about putting him into embarrassing situations if it might further a future client relationship. What he won’t do is extend the smallest personal loan to help his children out of a jam or divert from his routine in order to support them in their endeavors. Ultimately the most frustrating character in the novel, he unwittingly facilitates several of its sweetest moments as others rally to make up for his indifference.
Holling’s narrative voice is wonderful, an intriguing mix of the soul of a seventh-grader and the eloquence of an adult whose early introduction to Shakespeare seems to have led to a continuing love of language. He settles into the limited viewpoint of his junior high days, and we’re certainly getting the thought process of an early teen, complete with moments of amusing cluelessness. For instance, when he begins reading The Tempest, he’s sure that Mrs. Baker has never read it, or she wouldn’t have assigned him something with such colorful language. It never seems to cross his mind that the monstrous villains of the play might have inspired the names of the class’s hideous pet rats, with which he came into startlingly close contact in the previous chapter.
At the same time, there is a certain difference between his narrative voice and his dialogue or the essays he writes for Mrs. Baker. While it’s not self-consciously reminiscent and never looks ahead to what befalls characters in later years, it does remind me a bit of the voiceovers in A Christmas Story or The Wonder Years. These are his immediate reactions, but polished just a little in the meantime. Sometimes, his observations are wryly funny: “Life got brighter, and somehow, the world suddenly got brighter, too. You know how this is? You’re walking along, and then the sun comes out from behind a cloud, and the birds start to sing, and the air is suddenly warm, and it’s like the whole world is happy because you’re happy. It’s a great feeling. But never trust it. Especially in November on Long Island.” Others are somber: “Maybe the first time that you know you really care about something is when you think about it not being there, and then you know – you really know – that the emptiness is as much inside you as outside you.” And, of course, Shakespearean quotes frequently wriggle their way into the crevices of the narrative. Perhaps my favorite: “The quality of mercy doesn’t drop much from Gym teachers.”
The book’s setting is of vital importance to the story, and the tumultuous international events of late 1967 and early 1968 are never as distant as they initially seem to Holling. The culture war divides his own family as his Beatles-loving, face-paint-wearing peacenik sister tries to assert herself against their disapproving father. Amidst looming fears of atomic warfare, the Columbia protests, the Battle of Khe Sanh and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy are among the major historical milestones that affect Holling as he becomes more keenly aware of the divisions that rend his world as surely as they did Shakespeare’s.
Over the course of the year, Holling studies, observes and even takes part in any number of wars. While the Vietnam War provides a historical backdrop and several grand Shakespearean conflicts offer literary context, he becomes more aware of the wars that surround him. Some are hysterical, like the war his class and a couple of teachers wage on the rogue Sycorax and Caliban or the ill will that develops when Holling receives a much-desired delicacy while his classmates are away. Others are inspiring, like the cross-country competition in which Danny and Holling compete. But many are cause for deep turmoil, whether it’s the ideological divide in his own family or the prejudicial attitudes that poison interpersonal relationships at school, and he begins to understand what Mrs. Baker means when she says Macbeth tells her “That we are made for more than power. That we are made for more than our desires. That pride combined with stubbornness can be disaster. And that compared with love, malice is a small and petty thing.”
Seventh grade is generally a chaotic time no matter when one enters it, but the typical insecurities, miscommunications and awkwardness that mark this age become magnified when the whole world is in upheaval. The Wednesday Wars makes grand events intimate and shows how tiny events can have far-reaching effects. “Love and hate are not far apart in the seventh grade, let me tell you,” Holling asserts. Perhaps, then, this is the perfect time to painstakingly learn how to reject the second in favor of the first. In this novel that is at once hilarious and deeply moving, Holling takes those steps and invites us to do the same.
This review is a part of the National Poetry Month Write-Off, the Made in the USA Write-Off, the Celebrate America Write-Off and my Tales to Warm Your Mind Write-Off.