Books: The Wednesday Wars

One thing I like about reading challenges is that I read – and enjoy – books I would not have picked up otherwise. I generally read widely enough that I can check off most of the items on the list without going looking for them. Often I discover that a book I picked for one category fits another, one that would have been harder to find a match for. For instance, I picked Amor Towles’ excellent novel A Gentleman in Moscow because it was a bestseller in 2016, but discovered that it was set in a hotel (and it’s amazing how a book about a man living in a hotel manages to seem so much bigger than its setting).

By now I’m down to the categories that I don’t fill just by accident. I had already read a book with one of the seasons in the title (An Event in Autumn by Henning Mankell, who is one of my current favorite mystery writers, along with Louise Penny, who wrote Still Life, which is set around a holiday other than Christmas), but browsing in the library hadn’t uncovered any books with a month or day of the week in the title.

With Google, however, it was easy to discover The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt, and a quick look at reviews on convinced me it was worth reading. Some coming-of-age novels annoy me (I realize that by definition, the main character is at least somewhat immature to start with, but sometimes the characters are just plain hard to care about, let alone like), but this one is wonderful.

Holling starts out convinced his 7th grade teacher hates him, and when she starts making him read Shakespeare, he thinks its part of her strategy to kill him. But he soon finds that, as he says, “Her nefarious plot to bore me to death failed again, because ‘The Tempest’ was even better than ‘The Merchant of Venice.’”

Some reviews question whether the parts about Shakespeare aren’t a bit beyond the intended audience (grades 5-7), but I think Schmidt does a great job of including just enough to get kids interested in reading Shakespeare for themselves, while showing how Holling comes to appreciate the wisdom of the Bard.

The book is about a lot more than school, though. Set in 1967-68, it has Holling’s parents watching Walter Cronkite report the news, including the mounting death toll in Vietnam, as well as the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Holling’s older sister wants to be a “flower child,” which greatly angers their father, whose main concerns seem to be having the “perfect house,” beating out his business rivals, and becoming the Chamber of Commerce Businessman of the Year.

One review I read criticized the book because Holling’s parents come across as caricatures, his father controlling and his mother unwilling to stand up to him, both of them uninvolved and uninterested in Holling’s life so long as he doesn’t get in trouble. But I take that as just another of the exaggerations for effect, like the school principal whose apparent goal is to be dictator of a small country. Holling does have caring adults in his life, particularly his teacher (who is too good to be true according to the same review). His parents are static characters, but there are others who do grow and change, both adults and children.

I enjoyed the book because of the humor, the literary references, the positive messages, and because it’s just plain well-written (IMHO), but also because of the history that overlaps my own childhood. I was only in kindergarten that year, and the only events I remember occurred on the school grounds. (The first awareness I remember having of the Vietnam war was of the My Lai massacre, reported in Newsweek in 1969, though as my father kept old magazines a long time, I don’t know how old I was when I saw the pictures.) But the book describes a world that I remember.

We didn’t have to do atomic bomb drills (I didn’t realize they were still done in schools as late as 1968), but the fear of nuclear disaster was very real. I was never quite as interested in baseball as Holling, but in 1967-68 I still loved the sport (I started losing interest a year or two later when the boys would no longer allow us girls to play on their teams at recess, with the exception of Nancy who was a tomboy and bigger and stronger – and probably a year older).

I even remember the enormous parking lots at Jones Beach (where Holling’s mother had let him try driving the station wagon), though mostly I remember coming home with a bad sunburn. I remember hometown bakeries, though my favorite was eclairs, not cream puffs. And while my parents, unlike Holling’s, always attended plays or concerts I was in, Holling’s older sister’s conflicts with their parents, demanding that her opinions be heart, reminded me of my older sister’s conflicts with our parents.

I hope that people who have no memory of that era, however, would still read and enjoy this excellent book.

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