Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1644
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 focus is on enforcing a ludicrous dress code while bombs are dropping on people in Vietnam. Later, she tells Holling that "going to military school is a ridiculous idea," but not for the reasons their father gave. Holling's sister says that "the next stop after military school is Saigon," and almost voices genuine concern for his welfare, but is unable to fully express her sentiment.
Mrs. Baker gives Holling a test on Macbeth, and talks about Shakespeare's purposes in writing the play. She says that Shakespeare wanted "to express something about what it means to be a human being," which leads to a discussion about malice being "a small and petty thing." Holling asserts that malice is neither small nor petty, pointing out the repercussions he is facing because of the pictures still being posted around the school. When Mrs. Baker assures him that "people will soon forget," he retorts, "it's not like it's your picture in the halls, or that you have all that much to worry about." The callousness of his words strikes him immediately, as he remembers Mrs. Baker's husband in Vietnam, but the damage is done. Mrs. Baker dismisses him abruptly, and does not acknowledge him for the rest of the week.
The weather becomes increasingly dismal, but school remains in session because of standardized testing. As Holling walks home on the icy streets, a schoolbus trying to pass Mrs. Baker's car begins to skid sideways across an intersection. Directly in its path is Holling's sister, heading back from the high school, and Holling runs to push her out of the way. The schoolbus's bumper catches Holling squarely on his butt and sends him flying. When he lands, Mrs. Baker and Mr. Guareschi, the principal, come to his aid, and although he insists he is all right, they take him to the hospital. Mrs. Baker calls Holling's father, as parental permission is needed before he can be treated; Holling's father, however, with his usual lack of concern about his son, gives approval "for any necessary procedures" over the phone, and says he "will be along as soon as may be convenient." Mrs. Baker drives Holling home when he is released, and his picture appears once again in the newspaper. This time, he is shown flying across the intersection to save his sister, and when someone tapes copies of this photograph all over the school, everyone thinks he is a hero.
Holling's father wins the Chamber of Commerce Businessman of 1967 Award, and the whole family is forced to attend the presentation banquet. Before the Hoodhoods leave home however, the ceiling of the Perfect Living Room falls in, raining moldy plaster on the room's furnishings. The ceiling in Holling's classroom is similarly compromised, with the asbestos tiles bulging under the weight of the escaped rats, Sycorax and Caliban. At the beginning of February, Mrs. Baker has Holling read Romeo and Juliet. Mrs. Baker thinks the play is "tragic and beautiful" because of the star-crossed lovers whose fate is not in their own hands, but Holling just finds it annoying.
Meryl Lee, on the other hand, thinks it is wonderful that Holling is reading Romeo and Juliet. To his surprise, Holling finds himself asking her to go out with him on Valentine's Day, and she accepts. Sadly, Holling has only $3.78 to spend on their date; his mother, who is "not powerful at arithmetic," suggests that he take Meryl Lee to dinner and a movie, while his father laughs and says that if his company gets the junior high school building contract now up for grabs, Meryl Lee's father's company "may very well be no more." Word of Holling's dilemma gets around school, and this time, Mrs. Bigio comes to the rescue. She offers Holling two tickets to see Romeo and Juliet at the Festival Theatre; they are season tickets, and as Mrs. Bigio's husband is gone, she will not be using them.
Meryl Lee loves the play, and afterwards, Holling takes her to Woolworth's for Cokes. The two talk amiably about their fathers' models for the new junior high, and Holling draws his father's design on a placemat to give Meryl Lee an idea of what it looks like. Meryl Lee takes the placemat home as a souvenir of their date, and a week later, when the school board meets to choose the architect for the building project, Holling's father discovers that Kowalski and Associates has stolen his design. Holling realizes that Mr. Kowalski got the design from Meryl Lee, and feels betrayed.
For the next few days, Meryl Lee comes to school wearing sunglasses, even though it is dreary outside. She avoids Holling, and when Mrs. Baker has Holling write an essay on what Shakespeare wanted to express about being a human being in Romeo and Juliet, he cynically answers, "you better be careful who you trust." Meryl Lee tries to explain that she had no idea her father would steal Holling's father's design, but Holling accuses her of lying. In anger, Meryl Lee removes her sunglasses and throws them at Holling, and he sees her eyes, red from crying. The next day, Meryl Lee is absent from school. Holling writes a new essay about Romeo and Juliet for Mrs. Baker, about how hard it is "to care about two things at the same time - like caring about the Montague family and caring about Juliet too." That night, Holling buys two Cokes at Woolworth's and goes to Meryl Lee's house. Mr. Kowalski lets him in, and Holling and Meryl Lee make peace and share the Cokes together. Kowalski and Associates subsequently withdraws their bid for the building contract, and Holling's father is jubilant, calling his competition "chumps" for being unable to "play for keeps." Witnessing his father's crass behavior, Holling experiences an epiphany. He wonders if his father is the way he is because that is what everyone expected him to be, and if he had ever wanted anything else. Knowing that his father expects him to take over the business when he gets older, Holling asks himself, for the first time, if indeed he wants something else.
Meryl Lee and Holling spend a lot of time together after the evening of the Cokes. They are both present in the classroom after school when Mrs. Baker receives a telegram informing her that her husband is missing in action in Vietnam.
The setting continues to be a major factor in the advancement of the narrative in these chapters. In addition to the pervasive backdrop of the Vietnam War, other elements of the environment take on symbolic meaning. In the "Perfect Living Room," the ceiling falls in, ruining the pristine furnishings that are simply for show. The collapse mirrors the disintegration of the Hoodhood family's tenuous cohesion, as Holling's father persists in his materialistic, controlling insensitivity, Holling's sister becomes increasingly rebellious, and Holling himself shows signs of beginning to think for himself. Similarly, the weather reflects the relationships between the characters. Gray clouds hang "in tatters," and the temperature is frigid after Holling wounds Mrs. Baker by loutishly telling her she has little to worry about in her life in comparison to his own paltry problems. Again, when Meryl Lee's father steals Holling's father's design and Holling is convinced of Meryl Lee's complicity in the matter, the weather is "damp...dark...and cold."
Holling still has moments of regression in his interactions with others, but on the whole he makes great advances towards maturity in January and February. There are glimpses of real concern between Holling and his sister, even though they still engage in continuous verbal put-downs in their daily interactions. Holling's sister attempts to voice her terror that he might one day be a casualty of the war, and although she is not quite ready to fully express such raw emotion, the sentiment is clearly there. Holling, for his part, does not hesitate to risk life and limb when he sees his sister in danger of being hit by a skidding school bus. Holling's relationship with Meryl Lee also moves to a new level. Even more important than the fact that they go on their first date, Holling and Meryl Lee become more comfortable with the new feelings they are experiencing towards each other as members of the opposite sex, and are able to appreciate each other as individuals. Because of this, a true friendship begins to develop between them, a friendship based on mutual trust.
It is in his orientation towards his father that Holling shows the most significant growth. Not only is he beginning to question the value of the life his father has planned out for him, but Holling also finds that he is able to see beyond his father's critical and callous attitude towards him to wonder if he ever had a chance to determine the course his own life was going to take. Even at the mere dawning of his journey into maturity, Holling can do what his father, as an adult, cannot. Holling is able sympathize with others and respond to mistreatment with understanding instead of vengeance, thus exhibiting the potential to become a caring and fully-realized human being.