I brought home Gary D. Schmidt‘s Newbery honor winning book The Wednesday Wars on a whim last week from the library. I really needed to turn my attention to Jane Eyre, but I was in the mood for something short and easy, and after a while I really miss reading middle grade or YA fiction. I LOVED Okay for Now when I read it this time a couple of years ago, so The Wednesday Wars has been on my radar since then. I loved this one every bit as much as Okay for Now, which makes sense since the books are very similar in theme and tone and voice, and have a few characters in common. (This also makes me wonder if these similarities are the reason that Schmidt was “robbed,” as Sherry puts it, of the Newbery back when Okay for Now was published.)
The Wednesday Wars is the story of Holling Hoodhood (yes, you read that right) and his seventh grade year. The year is 1967, and Holling is simply trying to survive seventh grade. The only son of a prominent but neglectful architect, Holling’s main distinguishing characteristic is that he’s the lone Presbyterian in a classroom full of Catholic and Jewish kids who depart school each Wednesday afternoon for religious classes at their respective places of worship. What follows then is primarily the story of Holling’s relationship with his English teacher, Mrs. Baker, under whose care Holling is left each Wednesday afternoon. Mrs. Baker’s exasperation at having the one seventh grader who hasn’t any place to be each Wednesday is almost palpable at the beginning of the story–she gives him inane tasks, like taking the blackboard erasers outside and clapping them. She finally settles on a more appealing activity (at least for her initially): she and Holling will study Shakespeare together. The unfolding of the plot is then driven by Shakespearean themes. This former English teacher absolutely loved being privy to the conversations between Holling and Mrs. Baker. I love the relationship that develops–reading this caused me to look back at my own teaching years with fondness on a few students with whom I developed a similar relationship.
If the story sounds high-brow, it certainly isn’t. Holling’s voice is that of a fourteen year old boy. I found myself laughing aloud on more than one occasion.
The next afternoon, after everyone had left for Temple Beth-El or Saint Adelbert’s, and after Doug Swieteck and Danny had waited around until the last minute in case Mrs. Baker had arranged for Whitey Ford to show up, Mrs. Baker handed me back my Macbeth test.
“Macbeth and Malcolm are not the same person, though their names share an initial consonant,” she said.
“I know,” I said.
“Nor are Duncan and Donalbain, who also share an initial and, for that matter, concluding, consonant, the same person.”
“I guess not,” I said.
“Malcolm and Donalbain are the king’s sons, not. . .”
“You know,” I said, “it’s not so easy to read Shakespeare–especially when he can’t come up with names that you can tell apart.”
Mrs. Baker rolled her eyes. This time I was sure.
“Shakespeare did not write for your ease of reading,” she said.
No kidding, I thought. (108-109)
Despite Holling’s adolescent attitude and bravado, though, this is a very poignant tale. It brings together very tough, very real issues–the Vietnam War, immigration, family difficulties, first love–and measures out the problems and sometimes even the solutions through the beautiful sieve of a teacher/student relationship and Shakespearean genius. This book will definitely make my best picks of 2014 list. Highly, Highly Recommended. (Clarion, 2007)