The Wednesday Wars is a young adult novel that is amazingly realistic on one hand—and amazingly unbelievable on the other. The realism comes from the skill with which Gary D. Schmidt realizes main character Holling Hoodhood and his sufferings in junior high. The tension between Holling and his teachers, his classmates, and his family is strikingly real, even when he is insisting that one of them is going to kill him. A second theme of gritty realism coursing through the novel is the Vietnam War. Whether it is the fear caused by the war itself—Mrs. Baker’s husband is in combat—or the rebellion that seizes Holling’s sister, Heather, the feel of the period is intensely real. Life is changing for these characters as it changed for many Americans during the period.
And then there is the unreality that leads to the novel’s fine comic touches. Some of this comes from the fierceness with which Holling wars with Mrs. Baker. Some comes from the hard-to-believe coincidences, as happens when he ruins the cream puffs by accident or when he starts running cross-country, only to have Mrs. Baker reveal herself to be a former Olympic athlete. And some of it comes from the at-times surreal mix of phrases from Shakespeare and contemporary teenage life.
The Wednesday Wars follows Holling Hoodhood through a school year. Everyone at Camillo Junior High is either Catholic or Jewish—except for Holling Hoodhood. On Wednesday afternoons, the Catholics in Holling’s seventh-grade class go to catechism. The Jewish kids go to Hebrew School…and the school has to decide what to do with Holling. He is assigned to Mrs. Baker’s room. Holling gets the impression that Mrs. Baker hates him because she quizzes him about why he will be in her room on Wednesdays, criticizes his grammar when he answers, gives him extremely complex sentences to diagram in English class, and suggests that he might benefit from sitting in on a sixth-grade math class. He shares his fears about Mrs. Baker with his friends and family, but no one seems overly concerned.
Come October, Mrs. Baker sets Holling to more active work: cleaning erasers and the coatroom. One afternoon she orders him to move several trays of cream puffs the school cook had baked. After he does, she has him go outside to clean more erasers, promising Holling a cream puff as a reward if he does a good job. He does—but the chalk dust drifts through an open window to settle on the cream puffs. Holling does not say anything, and the charity members who eat the puffs all get sick. His classmates had hoped he would get them cream puffs, and threaten to kill him if they do not get any. Mrs. Baker then starts a new practice for their Wednesdays: reading Shakespeare. That same month, Mrs. Baker’s two rats, which had been given to her by her husband, escape. At home, Holling’s sister begins a fairly quiet rebellion against their ambitious, conformist father.
In November, Holling’s life continues its up-and-down pattern. At home, water leaks through the roof, rotting the ceiling of the “Perfect House,” designed by his father. At school, he is assigned to sing soprano—and to read The Tempest. The first leads to growing closer to Meryl Lee; the second lands him the part of Ariel in a production of Shakespeare, which wins him some free cream puffs.
In December, the production is held. Holling hopes to keep his part in the play a secret, but Mrs. Baker offers extra credit to any student who attends. The play is held the same...
(The entire section is 951 words.)
Summary and Analysis
Chapters 1 and 2 Summary and Analysis
Holling Hoodhood, a seventh grader at Long Island's Camillo Junior High, is convinced that his teacher, Mrs. Baker, hates him. All of Holling's classmates are members either of St. Adelbert's Catholic Church or Temple Beth-El; Holling alone is Presbyterian. This in itself would not be a problem, except on Wednesdays, when, during the final period of the day, half of the students are excused to attend Hebrew School, while the other half go to Catechism. This leaves only Holling in class with Mrs. Baker, and Holling is certain his teacher is not happy about the situation.
Holling lives in what he calls "the Perfect House," located "right smack in the middle of town." This pristine but uninviting dwelling represents the values of his father, an architect at Hoodhood and Associates. After his first day of school, Holling goes home looking for an ally in what he perceives will be an upcoming, year-long "war" with Mrs. Baker. Sadly, his mother, a secret smoker, shrugs off his concerns with platitudes, while his father makes it clear that Holling had better not do anything to antagonize Mrs. Baker because he is trying to win a lucrative contract with her family's business. Holling's older sister, locked inside her room listening to the Monkees, is no help either, dismissing him cynically with a cutting jibe.
At school the next day, Holling is certain that Mrs. Baker is plotting to have "something awful" happen to him when he is coerced by the older boys into playing soccer, and is assigned to guard Doug Swieteck's hulking brother. With the behemoth barreling towards him, Holling, his own survival foremost in his mind, runs to the goal, waits, and sidesteps at the last second, inadvertently tripping his opponent and causing him to hit his head with "an iron thunk" against the goal post. Holling's friend Danny Hupfer, and Doug Swieteck himself, are in awe that Holling was able to "take out" Doug's brother, but Meryl Lee Kowalski, whom Holling believes has been in love with him since the third grade, berates him for his behavior. After it is announced on the public address system that Doug Swieteck's brother is fine and "would be back in school after ten days of observation," Mrs. Baker looks at Holling, who is sure she hates his guts.
Holling's paranoia is intensified when he is called to the office to see Mr. Guareschi, the principal. Mrs. Baker has suggested that Holling sit in on a sixth grade mathematics class on Wednesdays, since he had gotten by last year with "a decidedly below-average grade." As Holling had technically passed, however, Mr. Guareschi decides that he is ineligible to take the course again. Mrs. Baker responds to this news impassively, and later that afternoon, Mr. Guareschi announces that "Lieutenant Tybalt Baker would soon be deployed to Vietnam...and (the school community) should wish him, together with Mrs. Baker, well."
During Wednesday afternoons in September, Holling is assigned to do odd jobs by Mrs. Baker, which frequently includes pounding chalkboard erasers. Because of his father, Holling is careful not to complain, and by the first week in October, Mrs. Baker's family business, Baker Sporting Emporium, has narrowed its architect choices to two: Hoodhood and Associates, and Kowalski and Associates. At recess one Wednesday, Mrs. Baker asks Holling to bring up trays of cream puffs that Mrs. Bigio, the campus cook, has made for a gathering of Wives of Vietnam Soldiers. Dutifully, Holling makes twelve trips to the first floor kitchen, carrying the trays one at a time and placing them by the open windows of the third floor seventh grade classroom. When the students leave for their religious education classes, Mrs. Baker gives Holling a big box of erasers to pound. Holling watches the clouds of chalkdust rise in the breeze, and is horrified when he realizes that they are wafting into the open classroom windows and settling gently on the trays of cream puffs. Mrs. Baker gives Holling a cream puff when he has finished, but he...
(The entire section is 1652 words.)
Chapters 3 and 4 Summary and Analysis
In November, Mrs. Baker has Holling read The Tempest. Despite his preconceptions, Holling is captivated by all the "good stuff" in the play, especially the cussing, which he decides to learn by heart. He figures that Mrs. Baker could not have read the play herself; if she had, she certainly would not have let him have it. Holling is amazed when he discovers that his teacher not only has read the play, but she knows the bad parts as well. Mrs. Baker gives Holling a one-hundred-and-fifty question test on The Tempest, and assigns him to read the play again, telling him "there is a lot more to (it) than a list of colorful curses."
The deadline set by Holling's...
(The entire section is 1598 words.)
Chapters 5 and 6 Summary and Analysis
Holling returns to school in January to find that Doug Swieteck's brother has plastered newspaper photographs of him playing Ariel in his yellow tights all over the halls. Although friends tear down the pictures, Doug Swieteck's brother has an ample supply, and Holling is subjected to unceasing ridicule. Holling decides that the only solution is to transfer to military school, but when he announces his intention, his father reveals that Hoodhood and Associates is bidding on a contract for a new junior high school in town, and that Holling's plans to change schools are ridiculous. Holling's sister tells their father that Holling's idea is no more ridiculous than attending her high school, where...
(The entire section is 1644 words.)
Chapters 7 and 8 Summary and Analysis
Although the White House insists that the war in Vietnam is going well in March, it is clear from television news reports that the situation is rapidly deteriorating. Five thousand Marines are trapped in Khesanh, and among the missing is Mrs. Baker's husband. Holling's sister is devastated at this turn of events, and even Holling's father can only watch in stunned amazement. Mrs. Baker maintains a stoic attitude at school, but at times her eyes are red and drippy. On the "Ides of March," the day that Julius Caesar met his death, members of the school board are coming to evaluate teacher and student performance. Also scheduled for that day are try-out finals for the cross-country team; Coach...
(The entire section is 1688 words.)
Chapters 9 and 10 Summary and Analysis
May is "Atomic Bomb Awareness Month," and the students at Camillo Junior High are practicing scrunching under their desks with their hands over their heads so that they will be protected in case an atomic bomb is dropped on New York City. On Wednesdays, Holling is reading Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, with Mrs. Baker. At home, Holling's father is confounded when he learns that Kowalski and Associates has secured a multi-million dollar contract to renovate Yankee Stadium.
Holling's sister continues to insist that she will be attending Columbia University after graduation, but Holling's father is immovable in his opposition. One night,...
(The entire section is 1655 words.)