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, Holling's sister secretly sets out for California with her friend Chit, to "find herself." Holling's father swears that she will have to live with the consequences of her decision without his help, and he worries about the effect her action will have on his reputation. The Perfect House grows "quiet and still" in Holling's sister's absence because there is so much "that no one want(s) to talk about."
Danny Hupfer's bar mitzvah is coming up, and Holling, Meryl Lee, and Mai Thi help him prepare for the big event. One Wednesday, Holling asks Mrs. Baker not to call him "Mr. Hoodhood," as is her habit, because he says it sounds as if she is talking to his father. Although Mrs. Baker tells Holling that, like his father, he has "the soul of an architect," Holling voices his fear that he will not get the chance to decide that for himself. Mrs. Baker takes Holling on a tour of "points of architectural interest" in the area, and Holling gains an appreciation for the beauty and history they represent. When Mrs. Baker and Holling pass St. Adelbert's, Holling asks to go inside. In the silent darkness, Holling asks Mrs. Baker if she arranged for Kowalski and Associates to get the contract at Yankee Stadium, but Mrs. Baker responds that Holling does not need to know that. Holling then tells his teacher that in the event of a nuclear attack, having students hide under their desks would be pointless, and wonders why they bother with the useless drills. Mrs. Baker says it is because "just doing something gives comfort," and because people do not know what else they can do. When Holling asks, "Is there anything else we can do," Mrs. Baker responds that he should learn everything he "can...and...grow up to be a wise and good man," and indicates that, beyond this, he should leave things in God's hands. Holling lights a candle there in the church with Mrs. Baker, and prays for peace and Lieutenant Baker and Danny Hupfer and his sister.
Holling's sister calls that night, at a time when she knows only Holling will be awake. She has had a fight with Chit and is stuck in Minneapolis without money, and she does not know what to do. Having no money himself, Holling cashes a savings bond and wires the money to his sister for a bus ticket home. He is sad that she has not been able to find herself, but understands that, like Hamlet, she needs to find a home, with someone who loves her, even more. At breakfast, Holling tells his parents that his sister will be back in New York later that day and that she will need someone to pick her up at the Port Authority. Holling's father refuses to go, and Holling's mother, in a voice "as sad and lost as Loneliness," says that she cannot go either. Fortuitously, Holling manages to get a ride to the Port Authority from Meryl Lee's father; his mother gives him money for lunches and train tickets...
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home, and Holling goes to meet his sister Heather's bus. When they get home, Holling's father asks Heather curtly if she has found herself, and Holling speaks for her, saying, "She found me." Holling reflects on Hamlet, wondering if his unhappiness was the result of the fact that "he looked in all the wrong places trying to find himself." Holling thinks that someone should have told him that "he didn't need to find himself...he just needed to let himself be found." On the last Wednesday in May, Holling is with Mrs. Baker when she learns that her husband has been found and will be coming home. The sounds of her joy remind him of "the sound of a bus coming into the station carrying someone you love."
Mrs. Baker takes her class camping in the Catskills in June. First, however, Holling must read Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, which is supposed to be a comedy, but does not seem to him to be funny at all. Holling is also annoyed with the play because he does not believe it represents real life. In real life, things are "not always smiles;" sometimes it is "more like Bobby Kennedy...who (is) shot at point blank range." Holling's sister locks herself in her room when she hears the news, but Holling knocks on her door until she comes out to go with him to St. Adelbert's to light a candle and pray. Kennedy dies anyway, and while Heather cries, Holling holds her, "not knowing what at all to do except to be together."
The trip to the Catskills is filled with little disasters but is memorable because of the atmosphere of cooperation that prevails. Holling loses the cooking utensils, it rains, and the campers are beset by mosquitoes, but Meryl Lee helps Holling with all his camp duties to make it fun, and that makes all the difference. Holling shares a memorable evening sitting up with his friends and Mrs. Baker by the campfire, and Mrs. Bigio asks Mai Thi if she would like to come to live with her. On the last night of camp, Holling lies awake, reflecting on his life. The morning dawns, and the sun illuminates the river with loveliness and promise, creating a sight more beautiful than even Shakespeare himself could have described.
Holling, Heather, Meryl Lee, and Mai Thi are present at Danny Hupfer's bar mitzvah, as are the Kowalskis and, surprisingly, Holling's parents. Danny fulfills his duties admirably, and Holling senses that, right before their eyes, his friend has left childhood behind and become "something more than he was." After the ceremony, Holling's father comments disparagingly about the proceedings, but Holling expresses a different sentiment, telling his father that Danny has become a man. Holling's father scoffs, saying that becoming a man involves getting a good job and learning to be hard-nosed enough to "play for keeps," but Holling disagrees and confronts his father, saying that it is "not just about a job...it has to do with choosing for (one's)self. Holling's father challenges him, asking, "So who are you, Holling," and Holling, looking at Heather and thinking about Bobby Kennedy, replies, "I don't know yet...I'll let you know." Back at the Temple, Mrs. Baker and Holling talk about Don Pedro from Much Ado About Nothing. Mrs. Baker says she thinks that Don Pedro
...became a man who brought peace and wisdom to his world, because he knew about war and folly...he loved greatly because he had seen what lost love is...and...he came to know, too, that he was loved greatly.
Mrs. Baker believes that Holling's future will be similar to Don Pedro's, and she gives him her highest affirmation. Eleven days later, Lieutenant Baker comes home, and the whole class is present when he disembarks from his plane and is reunited with Mrs. Baker on the tarmac.
The end of the school year is fittingly marked by Danny Hupfer's bar mitzvah, a rite of passage in which he symbolically becomes a man. Holling too has come of age during the past year, having discovered the strength of compassion and the healing power of love. Holling has learned that it is in giving and receiving love that an individual finds identity; it is no accident that Holling's sister becomes a person with a name, Heather, in the moment that Holling realizes how important she is in his life. In contrast, the full tragedy of a life lived without love and tenderness is exemplified by Holling's mother. She is pathetic and ineffectual, a character so beaten down by her husband's callous domination that she dares not defy him even to help her own children, though it is clear she desperately longs to do so and knows that it is right. Happily, it appears that, unlike their mother, Holling and Heather will escape the destructive cycle engendered by their controlling father. With the strength drawn from the support of Mrs. Baker and his circle of friends, Holling has found the courage to stand up for himself and is becoming a fully realized young man. The reader gets the sense that there is a good chance that Heather, because of the love of her brother, will also find fulfillment and preserve her right to have a say in her own destiny.
The story draws to a close on a note of hope and affirmation, as symbolized in the sunrise that Holling witnesses in the Catskills. The river before him sparkles in the sun's reflection, and as Holling watches its steady course, it reminds him of his life, and he is filled with wonder, awe, and a little bit of bewilderment. Holling looks forward, knowing that soon he will be taking his place in a world in which the spectre of war and unrest overshadows everything, and heroes are shot down in cold blood, but he knows too that there is great joy that can be found in living a life well chosen and in establishing caring relationships with other people. Holling's future, though uncertain, is filled with possibility, and he understands that part of the excitement and beauty of what lies ahead is in not knowing but having the privilege to discover.