What happens in The Wednesday Wars?
It's 1967, and Holling Hoodhood is the only kid in his school who isn't Catholic or Jewish. On Wednesday afternoons, when his fellow students go to catechism or Hebrew school, he's assigned to Mrs. Baker's room.
- Mrs. Baker assigns Holling busywork on Wednesday afternoons: cleaning erasers, tidying up the coatroom, and moving dozens of cream puffs for a charity event. When Holling and Mrs. Baker start reading Shakespeare, he takes an interest in acting and gets the part of Ariel in the school's production of The Tempest.
- Holling's classmates tease him for his love of Shakespeare. Some of them post pictures of him in his costume all over the school. He starts dating Meryl Lee and accidentally shares the details of one of his father's architectural designs with her. Meryl's father, another architect, adapts the design and steals the contract from Holling's father.
- When Mrs. Baker's husband goes missing during the Vietnam War, she throws herself into her work. Meanwhile, the world seems to be falling apart: Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy are both assassinated, and Holling's sister runs away. At the end of the year, Holling and his classmates go to the airport with Mrs. Baker to greet her husband, who has been found.
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...
(The entire section is 1,168 words.)