The Wednesday Wars Summary

Gary D. Schmidt

The Wednesday Wars

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The Wednesday Wars Summary

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The Wednesday Wars, by Gary Schmidt, is a young adult novel set over the course of a school year between 1967 and 1968. The novel follows the fortunes of Holling Hoodhood, a seventh grade student in Long Island, as he struggles with issues of identity, authority and love.

Holling is the only Presbyterian student in a school dominated by Catholic and Jewish kids, all of whom spend Wednesday afternoon in religious studies. Holling, on the other hand, spends Wednesdays with his English teacher, Mrs. Baker, whom he is convinced hates him. At first, Holling merely does chores like cleaning blackboards and beating erasers, but then Mrs. Baker assigns him Shakespearean plays to read. At first, Holling considers these assignments to be a form of punishment; further evidence of Mrs. Baker’s dislike for him. However, he eventually comes to enjoy them, particularly The Tempest and he learns many of Caliban’s curses off by heart. His knowledge of the play lands him the part of Ariel in his school’s production of The Tempest, which proves to be a mixed blessing. While it provides an opportunity for him to spend more time with his long-time crush, Meryl Lee Kowalski, he is also ridiculed for his costume, which includes a pair of yellow tights.

Over the course of his changing relationship with Mrs. Baker, Holling also discovers that she is a former Olympic athlete. Mrs. Baker coaches Holling when he joins the track team and his performance improves enormously. His evolving relationship with Mrs. Baker also brings home the reality of the Vietnam War to Holling, as her husband is declared missing in action shortly after being deployed. Holling admires Mrs. Baker’s attempts to carry on as normal, though her stoicism is sometimes belied by her red eyes. The complexity of the war and reactions to it are further amplified by the arrival of a Vietnamese refugee, Mai Thi, who has been sponsored by a Catholic Relief Agency. Mai Thi faces a lot of discrimination when she arrives at Camillo Junior High, from both students and teachers, some of whom have lost loved ones in the war. The reality of the discrimination Mai Thi faces puts Holling’s problems and experiences into perspective.

The Vietnam War is also increasingly a cause of tension in his own house; which Holling calls the “Perfect House”.  The house was designed by his father, an ambitious and conformist architect who is more concerned with appearances and status than he is with his own children. Throughout the novel Holling struggles with his feelings towards his father, conflicted between wanting to please him and his desire to figure out who he really is. For Mr. Hoodhood, it is a given that Holling will take over the family business and continue in his father’s footsteps and he refuses to consider sending Holling to military school because having his son attend the local junior high has professional advantages.

Holling finds an ally in his sister, Heather, who has started to question her father’s values and the values of American society more generally, as evident in her opposition to the Vietnam War. Heather’s changing attitudes lead to her clashing with her father, who is a very conservative and superficial person who seems oblivious to the cultural shifts happening around him and is only really motivated by professional success. Mr. Hoodhood’s attitude is unsustainable, however, and this is reflected in the novel by the collapse of the ceiling in the Hoodhood’s living room. Given that family houses are often used to symbolize the structure of society, this event suggests the impossibility of hiding from the changing nature of American society behind a façade of perfection.

In The Wednesday Wars, Schmidt points to the increasing impossibility of ignoring the changes brought about by the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement at this point in American history and part of Holling’s journey in this novel is from his relative self absorption and ignorance of these issues to his gradual awareness of them and their relevance to his own life. Holling and Heather’s conflicts with their father also highlight the generational dimension of social change and imply that with Holling’s increased awareness of issues such as war and racism comes a responsibility to tackle them. Schmidt’s novel then successfully combines a nuanced portrait of a significant time in American history with a traditional coming of age narrative in which a young boy begins to find his place in the world.