I was vaguely aware of The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt for a while. As in, I'd heard of it and seen its cover in stores and knew it was a 2008 Newbery Honor Book and was always mildly curious about it, but not curious enough to ever pick it up until recently, when I was browsing casually in a bookstore and decided to buy the paperback.
I read it very leisurely, in the evenings for a few minutes at bedtime, and it was a really happy experience. This is one of those books that unfolded really quietly and sweetly for me -- spreading it out over many nights helped me to really savor and appreciate the way it sort of snuck its way into being wonderful.
The set up of this book is simple: a boy named Holling Hoodhood is left behind when his classmates go off to their various religious educations one afternoon a week with a teacher he think hates him. Mrs. Baker is not an easy teacher. She pushes Holling. Relentlessly. What starts with rat cage cleaning and eraser banging leads to reading Shakespeare. To Holling's surprise, but probably not to Mrs. Baker's, he really takes to it.
One thing I love about this book is how seemingly chance encounters or moments end up changing life forever. Holling's trip to the bakery in an attempt to salvage a cream puff disaster leads him to wearing feathers on his butt while playing a fairy in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Escaped classroom rats lead him into an unexpected star track career. Being assigned to read Shakespeare alters his viewpoint on pretty much everything and helps him to understand comedy and tragedy in both fiction and real life.
The thing about Holling is that people see greatness in him. He doesn't see it in himself. He doesn't hate himself or anything like that, he just sees himself as a normal kid living a normal life who has ridiculous and unfortunate things happen to him a lot of time; such is the fate of a seventh grader. But he is inspirational to me because he is open to exploring whatever it is that other people think he can do. Mr. Goldman, the baker, knows he can act. His sister knows he can stand up to his dad, even though he doesn't know it, and even though she'd never come out and say that. And Mrs. Baker -- Mrs. Baker knows that Holling can do anything. Mrs. Baker is the kind of teacher I wish I had been.
Somehow Schmidt sets this all against the backdrop of Vietnam and reveals to a modern generation of young readers all of the ways the conflict there affected and changed America. Through the death of the cafeteria lady's husband. Through the presence and alienation of Mai Thi, a Vietnamese student at school. Through the ever-present but rarely spoken about knowledge that Mrs. Baker's husband is lost somewhere in a jungle. Through the huge divide between Holling's dad, who cares mostly about prestige in the business community and making money and is totally oblivious to what it means to find yourself, and Holling's sister, who resists the war and craves peace and loves the Beatles and Bobby Kennedy and is constantly searching.
This book doesn't try to be anything but what it is. It isn't flashy, and there are no vampires or wizards or dragons, but I think it is magical. In the way that ordinary things sometimes are. It is the story of real life in 1967-68, of simple people in a simple place.
I thought it would be a story about a boy learning Shakespeare on Wednesday afternoons. Which it is. But it is so much more. I didn't expect it to be a story of the sounds people make when they hear the worst news or best news of their lives, of love and loss, war and peace, sisters and brothers, students and teachers, and friends and first loves. I didn't know it would make me cry. I didn't know I would love it it so much. I think you will love it, too.