I first read The Wednesday Wars with a group of Korean middle-school students for a summer English program. We came to The Wednesday Wars straight after finishing Life of Pi, a novel that the entire class (including myself) loved and had become deeply – and exhaustingly! – involved in. Stepping out of Yann Martel’s work and into Gary D. Schmidt’s was a difficult transition. After tigers and sharks and mysterious islands The Wednesday Wars seemed tame, even a little boring. The lovely subtleties of Schmidt’s novel were overshadowed by the epic scale of Life of Pi, and my students and I didn’t appreciate The Wednesday Wars nearly as much as we should have.
I recently re-read The Wednesday Wars and found myself enjoying it much more than I had the first time around. I finished it in a couple of days, and even though I knew the ending I couldn’t wait to keep reading.
The Wednesday Wars is the story of Holling Hoodhood (what a great name!) as he faces seventh grade with a teacher (Mrs Baker) who makes him read Shakespeare on Wednesday afternoons. 1967 is not an easy year for Holling. Not only is he struggling to understand the meaning of Macbeth, he’s also got to worry about the school bully he accidentally tripped in a game of soccer (and who is no doubt out for revenge), his father’s obsession with the family business, and two escaped rats. And then there’s the Vietnam War raging in the background, and the threat of the atomic bomb. It’s not all bad, though. Caliban’s curses in The Tempest are pretty good stuff (“Toads, beetles, bats”!), and Romeo and Juliet helps Holling woo the lovely Meryl Lee. It’s not an easy year, but it’s certainly a formative one.
The best thing about The Wednesday Wars is Holling Hoodhood. He is an immensely likeable main character – funny and intelligent, with a naivety that only makes his observations of the world and those around him more profound. Nothing too extraordinary (by Life of Pi standards, at least) happens to Holling in The Wednesday Wars – he discovers a gift for acting, meets some major league baseball stars, travels to the city to rescue his sister – but the book is in no way dull. Holling’s unique and charming way of looking at the world and dealing with its difficulties make it an absorbing read.
Another thing I found interesting about The Wednesday Wars is the way Schmidt has structured it. The novel is divided up into months, starting in September (the beginning of the school year) and ending in June (when Holling graduates). While the narrative focuses on Holling’s life it is constantly backgrounded turbulent historical events, such as news of the battle of Khe Sanh and the assassination of Robert Kennedy. The story is also drawn along thematically by the plays Holling reads with Mrs Baker. He learns about defeat from The Tempest, power from Macbeth, and love from Romeo and Juliet. These historical and literary aspects add a nice depth to the novel.
The Wednesday Wars is a fun, engaging and surprisingly moving novel. There are some very touching moments that are not at all soppy or over done, and that gave me goose bumps even on my second read. I would recommend The Wednesday Wars to adults and young adults alike, and I hope to read more of Gary D. Schmidt’s novels in the future.
Gary D. Schmidt is an English professor at Calvin College in the U.S. He is the author of seven other novels, including What Came from the Stars (2012). The Wednesday Wars was awarded a Newberry Honor in 2008.