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In Gary D. Schmidt’s young adult novel The Wednesday Wars, Holling Hoodhood is a seventh-grader in the tumultuous year of 1967, and takes place against the backdrop of the war in Vietnam – a war that would come to have increasing meaning for Holling as the story progresses certain characters become more important in the young man’s life. On top of that list of increasingly influential figures stands Mrs. Baker, Holling’s teacher whom he believes hates him and seeks to punish him during their solitary Wednesday meetings by making him read the works of William Shakespeare. Having surprisingly enjoyed the first such volume thrust upon him, The Merchant of Venice, Mrs. Baker follows that selection up with Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which Holling discovers he enjoys even more than the earlier volume assigned him. And, it is in The Tempest and the story of Prospero and his adventures on the island to which he has been banished by fate that Holling discovers the wonderful world of witchcraft.
Holling is frowned upon by some of his fellow students for accidentally releasing the classroom pets, a pair of rats named Sycorax and Caliban, not coincidentally, the names of two characters from The Tempest, the former a deceased witch, and the latter her son who now serves at the pleasure of Prospero. In Shakespeare’s play, Caliban, despite being Prospero’s servant, harbors very deeply-held hatred towards his new master, who he believes stole the island that rightfully belongs to him:
“This island's mine, by Sycorax my mother,
Which thou takest from me. When thou camest first,”
This objection directed at Prospero is then followed by this wish for the poor health of his master:
“All the charms
Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you!
For I am all the subjects that you have,
Which first was mine own king:”
Convinced that Mrs. Baker hates him and that the reading assignments are a form of punishment, Holling believes that his adversary has inadvertently armed him with a powerful weapons: the curses of Caliban. As he suggests in his narration,
“It was surprising how much good stuff there was. A storm, attempted murders, witches, wizards, invisible spirits, revolutions, characters drinking until they’re dead drunk, an angry monster named Caliban? . . .I was amazed that Mrs. Baker was letting me read this. . . I figured she hadn’t read it herself, otherwise she would never have let me at it.”
Holling is taken by the character of Caliban’s use of colorful curses, and begins to use them himself as exclamatory remarks expressed in frustration or to punctuate unpleasant conversations, as when he mutters under his breath in the presence of Mrs. Baker, “Strange stuff, the dropsy drown you. Holling’s infatuation with the curses becomes a mission:
“I decided to ease into things more naturally, to let Caliban curses come where they might fit in without any fuss.”
What follows is a series of inane and obscure quotations uttered in the most mundane of circumstances:
“At lunch recess, Doug Swieteck’s brother lurched across the field, sixth graders scurrying out of his way as if he was a southwest wind about to blister them all over.” (This metaphor itself one of the Caliban curses)
‘Thou jesting monkey thou,’ I said.
Not so that he could hear it.”
As his penchant for quoting Shakespeare as a response to any and all circumstances takes over, he begins to find a kindred spirit in Mrs. Baker, the teacher whom he had believed hated him and sought his academic demise. The Wednesday Wars would turn out to be the zenith of Holland’s seventh grade experience. He has learned how to express himself in a manner with which no adult, even those who understand the source of his newly-discovered wisdom, can possibly argue. It is a powerful weapon, indeed.
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