Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1598
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 classmates for him to bring them cream puffs arrives, but although Holling's father's company has won the Baker's Sporting Emporium contract, he refuses to extend an advance on his son's allowance. Desperate, Holling goes to Goldman's Best Bakery, offering to work for the money he lacks to buy the cream puffs. Coincidentally, Mr. Goldman, who is active in Long Island's Shakespeare Company, needs a boy to perform in their upcoming Extravaganza, and because of his work with Mrs. Baker, Holling fits the bill. Mr. Goldman gives Holling the required number of cream puffs in exchange, but sadly, while the students are at recess, Caliban and Sycorax, the escaped rats who inhabit the classroom walls and ceiling, come out and decimate the treats. Somehow, the disaster is blamed on Holling; he must clean up the mess, and his classmates decree that he still owes them cream puffs. The next Wednesday, Holling brings five cream puffs to school, which is all he can afford. In addition to facing his classmates' ire, he has to deal with the fact that, in the Shakespeare Company Holiday Extravaganza, he must play the part of Ariel, who is a fairy, and wear yellow tights with white feathers on an unmentionable part of his anatomy; "not a good thing for a boy from Camillo Junior High." To Holling's surprise, just when things are at their darkest, Mrs. Baker comes through for him, bringing cream puffs for the students on his behalf. That afternoon, Mrs. Baker and Holling discuss The Tempest, and whether or not Caliban, the "monster," deserves a happy ending. Holling argues that, as the antagonist, he does not, but Mrs. Baker muses whether Shakespeare might have shown, even in a monster, the capacity of humankind to use defeat to grow.
Mrs. Bigio stumbles into the classroom at this point, emitting sounds of indescribable sadness; she has just learned that her husband has been killed in a futile reconnaissance mission in Vietnam. Two nights after his funeral, the Catholic Relief Agency, which houses Vietnamese refugees, including Holling's classmate Mai Thi, is the target of a hate crime. Holling reflects that Shakespeare, with his happy endings for nearly everyone in The Tempest, is wrong. He says, "sometimes, there isn't a Prospero to make everything fine...and...the quality of mercy is strained."
In December, Camillo Junior High is awash in "signs of the season." Mrs. Baker, however, does not share the holiday spirit, but Holling is too absorbed with his problems with the Shakespeare Holiday Extravaganza to wonder why. As always, Holling seeks help from his family, but to no avail; his mother comments insipidly that his embarrassing costume is cute, his father tells him to wear it to please Mr. Goldman, who might one day need an architect, and his sister warns him that if news of his role gets to the high school, no one better find out they are related. The only thing that prevents December from being a total disaster is Mrs. Baker's announcement that Mickey Mantle will be signing autographs at the Baker Sporting Emporium. Unfortunately, Mrs. Baker also tells the class about Holling and the Shakespeare Extravaganza, and encourages the students to attend both events.
Holling's classmates are intensely curious about his role as Ariel, whom he euphemistically describes as "a warrior." Mr. Goldman tells Mrs. Baker that Holling needs "some practice on interpretation", and she practices with him, playing the part of Prospero. Mrs. Baker is a terrific reader, and when she and Holling rehearse the part where Prospero releases Ariel from bondage, Holling is inspired, realizing what it means to be free "to create his own happy ending."
On the night of the performance, Mrs. Baker, Mrs. Bigio, Danny Hupfer and his parents, Meryl Lee, and Mai Thi are in the audience to support Holling, unlike his own parents, who do not want to miss the Bing Crosby Christmas Special on television. Holling executes his part with such passion that his classmates are moved to tears, and do not even notice what he is wearing. When the show is over, Holling, finding the dressing room locked, rushes outside, still in costume, where his father is supposed to be waiting to take him to Baker's Sporting Emporium to see Mickey Mantle. Typically, his father is not there, and Holling, frantic, flags down a bus and begs the driver to take him to the Emporium. The driver takes pity on him and complies, getting him to the Emporium just in time, but when Holling approaches Mickey Mantle for an autograph, the famous player looks derisively at his costume and snaps rudely, "I don't sign baseballs for kids in yellow tights." Danny Hupfer witnesses this snub, and loyally returns his own autographed baseball to Mickey Mantle, saying, "I guess I don't need this after all." Holling and Danny leave together in silence, smarting because "when gods die, they die hard."
During the days remaining until holiday break, Mrs. Bigio is especially cantankerous; her cafeteria cooking is unappetizing at best, and her comments to the students are impatient and unkind. Holling, remembering Mrs. Bigio's sadness when she received the news of her husband's death, does not complain, but he is bewildered at the sheer desolation he witnesses when Mrs. Bigio bitterly tells Mai Thi that she "shouldn't even be here...a queen in a refugee home while American boys are sitting in swamps on Christmas Day."
After school on the last day before break, Mrs. Baker gives Holling, Danny Hupfer, and Doug Swieteck each a new baseball and mitt, and sends them to the gym, where, to their delight, they meet Joe Pepitone and Horace Clark in their Yankee uniforms, and receive tickets to Opening Day at the Stadium. Mrs. Baker's family knows what happened with Mickey Mantle, and wants to make it up to the boys. The next day, President Johnson declares a Christmas ceasefire in Vietnam, and the holiday season begins in earnest.
Holling describes November as "the kind of month where you're grateful for every single glimpse of the sun, or any sign of blue sky above the clouds, because you're not sure that they're there anymore." The two months described in this section are indeed filled with dizzying ups and downs, and the downs in particular seem unrelenting. Holling, who continues to get no support from his family, agrees to play the role of Shakespeare's Ariel in order to pay for cream puffs for his class, and is mortified when he sees the costume he must wear. When his father neglects to pick him up after his performance, he is forced to attend Mickey Mantle's autograph signing engagement wearing tights and feathers, and he is completely disillusioned when the famed slugger ridicules his costume and rudely refuses to sign his baseball. Although disaster seems to follow upon disaster in Holling's life, his difficulties are lightened by the friendship and support of members of his school community. Danny Hupfer helps him bear the humiliation of Mickey Mantle's rebuff by returning his own autographed baseball in protest, and Mrs. Baker, whom Holling had been convinced hated him, comes through for him time and again, supplying replacement cream puffs for the class when the ones he has brought are damaged, helping him prepare for his role as Ariel and cheering him on during his performance, and arranging the meeting with Joe Pepitone and Horace Clark to ease the sting of the downfall of his former hero, Mickey Mantle.
The lesson Holling learns from reading The Tempest is the capacity of individuals to use defeat to grow. Holling still has a long way to go in maturing beyond his childish preoccupation with his own problems, but he is making progress. While he does not think to wonder why Mrs. Baker, whose husband is in Vietnam, is not in the holiday spirit, he notices on several occasions, even before she bails him out, that his teacher smiles at him, and he is no longer convinced she is out to get him. Holling is unable to understand why Meryl Lee starts to cry when he tells her that his father has "landed this big deal with the Baker Sporting Emporium," forgetting that Meryl Lee's father was his father's only competition, but when he witnesses the greatest tragedy of all in these chapters, when Mrs. Bigio learns of her husband's death, he is able to forget himself and begin to put his own misfortunes in perspective. Having recognized the sheer devastation of what has happened to Mrs. Bigio, Holling is able empathize, though not condone, when the distraught woman lashes out at Mai Thi. Speechless at the pain that is so evident in both Mrs. Biglio and his classmate, Holling can only wonder at the enormity of the sadness that seems to be everywhere around him, an undeniable part of the human condition.