The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt presents a humorous look at a year in the life of seventh grader Holling Hoodhood. The year is 1967; social turmoil rages across America, the war in Vietnam is reaching a turning point, but back home Holling Hoodhood has to face the venom of his English teacher, Mrs. Baker. Holling is the only Presbyterian in his class. This means that on Wednesdays when the Jewish students leave for Hebrew school and the Catholic students leave for Catechism he has to spend the last few hours of the day alone with his teacher, Mrs. Baker, who would clearly rather have the time for herself. That’s why she hates him, or so Holling thinks.
In what Holling suspects is an attempt to torment him, Mrs. Baker decides that since they have the time together they will study the works of Shakespeare and gives him a copy of The Merchant of Venice. Much to Holling’s surprise, he likes the play. It’s full of great insults like ‘pied ninny’ that he can use on his family and friends and on the school bullies who won’t even know they’ve been insulted. Over the course of the year Holling and Mrs. Baker form a close bond as he grows to see how much she really cares for her students in spite of her gruff way with them.
Holling faces many of the typical problems seventh grade boys face. He tries out for the track team. He has to deal with a very stern father. He has an older sister who constantly belittles him. There are the school bullies mentioned above and a girl he has an interest in. The world outside intrudes when the cafeteria cook’s husband is killed in Vietnam and when Mrs. Baker’s husband is listed as missing in action. Holling faces all of these events with such a winning, caring personality and good sense of humor that the book never loses its lighthearted tone for long.
It took me a while to get into the story, but once I did there was much to enjoy. Holling’s classmates provide many scenes of Tom Sawyer like hi-jinks. There are two escaped pet rats who take months to catch and make several very comic scenes possible. The Wednesdays Holling spends working through Shakespeare show that he is an exceptional student, but they do not leave the realm of the possible. Holling reacts to the plays like you’d expect a 12/13-year-old boy to. He thinks Romeo and Juliet are both stupid, for example. (I quite agree with him here.) He likes the curses as I mentioned earlier, he doesn’t really see the point of Hamlet until a family crises make it hit close to home and
he re-reads it. Holling is telling us about the entire school year, so events are kept moving at an entertaining brisk pace. Each chapter is a blend of humorous scenes and food for thought and each leaves you wanting more until a very satisfying ending.
Though I suspect there may be some wish-fulfillment going on in The Wednesday Wars, but Mr. Schmidt does bring all of his characters to life. Holling’s classmates are all individual personalities, a few of them are even complicated. There is an innocence to them that would be hard for me to believe if the story wasn’t set in 1967 but they students never become saccharine. There are several adults in the school, all of whom are fully developed characters. YA books like this often have only one or two school employees and those are often stock figures, but here we get several teachers, two principals, one custodian and the cafeteria cook who are all fully portrayed characters all acting like adults. I’m not completely sure that I believe a teacher like Mrs. Baker could really exist, but I want her to. That may be wish fulfillment on my part, but I think that’s okay as long as the author and the reader are both in on the wish fulfillment together.
The adults in Holling’s school are not perfect, they do learn from their students, but they are actually wiser than their students, which is nice to see in a YA book. Holling’s parents are not so wise. To say that his father does not understand his son or his daughter greatly understates the situation. There are several points in the book when Holling’s father is portrayed as a bad parent, frankly. I’m not sure he is a bad parent, but he does make several serious mistakes; he lets his children down, at least twice, in my view and he is never brought to terms for this. Holling’s mother is the only significant adult character who is poorly portrayed. She is a basic wet blanket, completely under the control of her husband. This may be true to the times and the situation, but I was disappointed that we never got any insight into her like we did with most of the other adult characters.
So, is there enough here to make this a good book for younger readers? I think so. I suspect The Wednesday Wars would appeal to anyone who enjoyed The Schwa Was Here or Al Capone Does My Shirts. It has just as much humor in it as those two do, with quite a bit more meat on its literary bones. I’m giving The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt five out of five stars.
I have had quite a few students select this book for their book club since I first posted this review on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B. back in late 2008. Lots of read it, but not so many liked it. Some like it, but it has not earned to following The Schwa Was Here has though I think it’s just as good, maybe better.