I usually don’t think of books set in the twentieth century as historical fiction, but that’s what Gary D. Schmidt’s The Wednesday Wars is billed as. The novel returns to the 1967-1968 school year, where Holling Hoodhood finds himself alone on Wednesday afternoons with his teacher, Mrs. Baker. Holling is in the unique position of being Presbyterian in his split Catholic/Jewish town, and while the rest of his classmates leave on Wednesday afternoons to go to either Hebrew School at Temple Beth-El or to Catechism at Saint Adelbert’s.
Holling hates his time with Mrs. Baker. He is convinced that she hates him, yet is in the position of having to do everything he can to get into her good graces. His father is the owner of Hoodhood and Associates, an architectural design company that is trying to get a contract with the Baker family. Holling begins with cleaning erasers for Mrs. Baker on Wednesdays. He runs errands through the school in the afternoon and helps to clean the cages of the two classroom rats, Caliban and Sycorax. This last task does not go as planned. The rats escape and make frequent appearances in the rest of the novel.
However, at one point in their Wednesdays together, Mrs. Baker decides to introduce Holling to Shakespeare. She assigns him the Tempest, which he is actually pleasantly surprised by. Holling is taken by Caliban’s curses. He recognizes the rhythm of them and finds that he memorizes them easily. The Tempest is followed by Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Hamlet, and Much Ado About Nothing. Holling interacts with these stories and finds that his own life starts to reflect their stories. He ends up going out for a date with a girl in his class while he’s reading Romeo and Juliet, and uses their experience together as a way to understand what the play was about.
I was a little bit disappointed in this novel. I had heard about it a few years ago. I actually think it was an Amazon recommended novel based on some book that I bought at the time, which was probably a Newberry winner because Schmidt’s novel was a Newberry Honor book in 2008. What begins as a book about a young boy who seems to go through a series of humorous events turns into that series of humorous events. As strong of a character Holling seems like, it’s as if Schmidt’s goal of being funny takes over at times and throws the reader through a hurtling series of “this-can’t-possibly-get-any-worse.” For example, Holling is cast as the fairy Ariel in The Tempest. First he learns that he has to wear a pair of yellow tights “with white feathers attached you can guess where.” He tries to keep his participation in the play a secret from his classmates, only to have his teacher invite them all to see him. Soon Holling learns that the night of the play conflicts with the arrival of baseball player Mickey Mantle, who is coming to visit and is willing to sign baseballs. If the lead up is not enough, the actual series of events that take Holling from the play to where he needs to go to meet Mickey Mantle becomes one unfortunate event after the other. I found myself skimming through the last hundred pages or so, because it started to read like a book outline, these small events that had to be overcome in order to get the reader to the end.
Where the novel succeeds is in the interactions between Holling and his sister, and Holling and Mrs. Baker. Interestingly, throughout the novel Holling changes his opinion of how he feels about both of them. His sister – a flower child who runs away with her boyfriend Chit – is initially an annoyance to Holling (even though their exchanges at this time are a highlight of the novel). Mrs. Baker is slightly different. Holling’s belief that she hates him is never really realized. Instead, the reader can see the way that she helps Holling come to understand who he is and what he might be capable of. Nonetheless, Holling arrives at this conclusion at the end, that Mrs. Baker has had his best interests in mind throughout the novel. These two transformations take the novel out of its series of humorous events and make it about something meaningful.
I’m not sure if I would recommend The Wednesday Wars. It seems that there are so many other adolescent and young adult novels that use humor much more effectively, as a way to affect emotion in important and dynamic characters. Spud by Jon van de Ruit is one of these, as is Harris and Me by Gary Pullman. But I did like to spend some time in Holling’s world, and to return to a slightly less contemporary time period to do so.