Monday, August 26, 2013

Book Review: The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt

This thoroughly enjoyable young adult novel is set in the suburbs on Long Island during the Vietnam War.  Holling Hoodhood is in seventh grade and is not Catholic or Jewish.  Consequently, each Wednesday afternoon when every other student in his class goes to either Hebrew school or catechism, he alone is left behind with his teacher, Mrs. Baker who, he is sure, hates him.

At first Wednesday afternoons are filled with unpleasant chores like pounding the chalk out of erasers and cleaning the class pet rats' cage. Wednesdays gradually become more bearable, though, when Mrs. Baker starts Holling on reading Shakespeare: The Tempest, The Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Macbeth, to name a few.  It turns out that Holling, despite initially believing that this was a new torture Mrs. Baker devised just for him, comes to love Shakespeare, even starring as Ariel in a community theatre production.  Meanwhile, Shakespeare is also a mechanism for Mrs. Baker to teach Holling about how to navigate life, and how to better understand other people.  She explains: "He wrote to express something about what it means to be a human being in words more beautiful than had ever yet been written...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."

Holling objects, and rightfully so, that in middle school malice is not always a "small and petty thing" as illustrated so clearly by cruel events that would definitely be labelled bullying today.  There is standard middle school meanness, and some heart-breaking indifference from Holling's parents.  Holling's father is focused on the success of his architectural business.  Holling's mother is emotionally distant.  Holling's older sister, Heather, is a trying to find her place in the world, largely by pushing against everything her parents are.

The Vietnam War provides a sobering backdrop looming behind every scene.  Mrs. Baker's husband is deployed, as are the spouses of several other teachers at the school, and is categorized as Missing In Action.  The tension is exacerbated by atomic bomb drills the school is required to do, and the occasional announcement of another deployment or death.

There is also great kindness and heroism demonstrated by several characters, notably Mrs. Baker, but also Holling's friends and fellow students, other staff at the school, and people in the community, even professional baseball players.  Holling himself adds to the sum of goodness in the story as he saves Heather at least twice in dramatic ways, and begins to develop a sense of responsibility not only for himself and his sister, but also for the world at large.

Mr. Schmidt deftly captures not only the upheaval of the late 1960s, but also the general trauma and tumult of middle school and difficult family life.  But he balances this recognition with an awareness of the abundance of good that people are capable of. The Wednesday Wars is filled with hope for - and a love of - humanity.


The Wednesday Wars
by Gary D. Schmidt
ISBN: 9780618724833
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

No comments:

Post a Comment