The Wednesday Wars
- After now reading THE WEDNESDAY WARS three times, it remains for me the book of the year and my pick for the next Newbery Medal.
"Toads, beetles, bats, light on you!"
In September of 1967, in the suburbs of Long Island, Holling Hoodhood begins seventh grade at Camillo Junior High. Holling happens to be the only Presbyterian student in Mrs. Baker's class, and so on Wednesday afternoons, "when at 1:45 sharp, half of my class went to Hebrew School at Temple Beth-El, and, at 1:55, the other half went to Catechism at Saint Adelbert's," Mrs. Baker finds herself responsible for dealing with her one remaining student.
Holling, who believes Mrs. Baker hates him because of this situation, spends that first month's Wednesday afternoons completing classroom chores that his teacher assigns him. "The Wednesdays of September passed in a cloudy haze of chalk dust." But, after hilarious and unintended consequences result from Holling's missteps in carrying out several of his assigned tasks, Mrs. Baker decides to shift gears and spend subsequent Wednesday afternoons "doing" Shakespeare with her student.
It turns out that there are also hilarious and unintended consequences that result from this new course of action. For while Holling undertakes his experiencing of the Bard with the belief that, "Teachers bring up Shakespeare only to bore students to death," it turns out that he recognizes some terrific stories when he reads them and -- thanks to Caliban -- recognizes some great new (old) curses which he sets to practicing until, in times of great adversity, they leap as naturally from his tongue as do the phrases that are more commonly heard amongst today's young rapper wannabes:
"She put her red pen down. 'Since there are only two of us in the room -- a situation which has become very familiar to us these past months -- and since you were speaking, I assumed that you must be addressing me. What did you say?'
" 'Mr. Hoodhood, what did you say?'
" 'Strange stuff, the dropsy drown you.'
"Mrs. Baker considered me for a moment. 'Was that what you said?'
" 'A curious line to repeat, especially since the combination never occurs in the play. Are you trying to improve on Shakespeare?'
" 'I like the rhythm of it,' I said.
" 'The rhythm of it.'
Mrs. Baker considered this for a moment. Then she nodded. 'So do I,' she said, and turned back to spreading the red plague.
"That had been close."
While all of this makes for a truly delightful and zany tale, my description to this point merely scratches the surface of what Gary Schmidt has accomplished, for THE WEDNESDAY WARS is a profound story of change and of heroes, a story that hit me hard in the gut and is, unquestionably, one of the best books I have read in years.
Admittedly, some of my reaction to THE WEDNESDAY WARS results from the fact that I, like Holling Hoodhood, was a suburban Long Island seventh grader during the 1967-68 school year. This was a school year that, for me, began in innocence with my ongoing immersion in the Monkees and New York Top 40 radio at a time that the Summer of Love was happening across the country in my future home. It was a school year that began, in September 1967, at a point in my life when I'd been strongly influenced by The Church, the Boy Scouts, and the just-ended summertime days that I'd spent with the All-American, beer-drinking, blue-collar sages on Dad's construction sites.
It was a school year that came to include night after night after night of television news reports that showed shooting and bombing on the other side of the world, accompanied by body bags of American kids stacked up daily like so many cords of wood. It was a school year that ended, in 1968, with the murders of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy.
For me and for America this was a school year of unprecedented change. And, having been there, I can state in no uncertain terms that through the ten chapters of THE WEDNESDAY WARS -- each one named for the successive months that constitute that school year -- Gary Schmidt both impeccably portrays those times and then relentlessly, and sometimes excruciatingly, injects those times into the hearts of his characters' lives:
"And that was when Mrs. Bigio came into the classroom. Actually, she didn't quite come in. She opened the door and stood leaning against the doorway, one hand up to her mouth, the other trembling on the doorknob.
"Mrs. Baker stood. 'Oh, Edna, did they find him?'
"Mrs. Bigio nodded.
" 'And is he...'
"Mrs. Bigio opened her mouth, but the only sounds that came out were the sounds of sadness. I can't tell you what they sounded like. But you know them when you hear them.
"Mrs. Baker sprinted out from behind her desk and gathered Mrs. Bigio in her arms. She helped Mrs. Bigio to her own chair where she slumped down like someone who had nothing left in her.
" 'Mr. Hoodhood, you may go home now, ' Mrs. Baker said.
"But I will never forget those sounds."
The times also strike home for Holling as he witnesses the dinnertime war that is initiated between his father and his older, high school-attending sister when she appears at the dinner table with a flower painted on her face and fresh ideas of peace and love planted in her mind. Hollings' father, whose rationale for virtually everything he says and does is governed by his strategizing to gain new contracts for his architectural firm, will stand for nothing of the sort:
" 'Thank you, Miss Political Analyst,' said my father. 'Now analyze this: The person to whom you are now speaking is a candidate for the Chamber of Commerce Businessman of 1967. This is also an honor that will lead to larger, more profitable ventures than he has yet seen. It is not an honor that is awarded to a man who has a daughter who calls herself a flower child. So go wash your face.' "
For Holling Hoodhood, the 1967-68 school year is a time of old heroes (and fat rats) falling and new heroes ascending. Four decades later, reverberations of that year's events are still keenly felt in America's politics and cultural wars. In THE WEDNESDAY WARS, Gary Schmidt provides readers with an unlikely young hero and an unmatched taste of a time that a-changed everything.
- Meet Holling Hoodhood. He is entering seventh grade. There's nothing too scary about it since he's known most of his classmates forever. There are a few bullies and a few annoying ones, but overall, Holling is looking forward to a new year. Unfortunately, the first Wednesday of the new year reveals a not-so-pleasant surprise.
Every Wednesday afternoon beginning just before 2:00pm everyone leaves his classroom. That is, everyone except Holling and Mrs. Baker. What happens is, the Catholic half of the class is taken by bus to attend Catechism class, and the Jewish half of the class goes to Hebrew School at the temple. Since the Hoodhood family attends the Presbyterian Church, Holling stays put in the classroom.
Needless to say, Holling realizes quite quickly that Mrs. Baker is rather disappointed. If all the students were to leave on Wednesday afternoons, she would have a peaceful chunk of time to catch up on grading papers and making lesson plans. Alas, Mrs. Baker must find ways to occupy Holling instead. There are days when Holling is pretty certain that Mrs. Baker hates him.
Typical Holling-type chores include cleaning the erasers, washing the chalkboard, cleaning the cage of the classroom's pet rats, and doing extra worksheets. One afternoon when Holling was preparing for his usual Wednesday assignment, Mrs. Baker surprised him with a new idea. He was going to begin reading Shakespeare. Soon, Wednesday afternoons become quite interesting.
In addition to the classroom elements of the story, readers get an inside view of life in the Hoodhood home. Holling's father is an ambitious architect, his mother is an obedient housewife, and his sister is a "flower child" out to change the Vietnam-era world.
Gary D. Schmidt presents the world of middle school in THE WEDNESDAY WARS. Every student's nightmare and every teacher's dream - one-on-one instruction. Schmidt fills the pages with sentence diagramming, vicious yellow-toothed rats, luscious cream puffs, chalk dust, yellow tights with feathered bottoms, as well as serious subjects like Shakespeare, architecture, politics, the Vietnam War, and growing up in the 60's.
Readers, young and old alike, are sure to fall in love with Holling's story.