The Wednesday Wars

by

Gary Schmidt

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The Wednesday Wars: January Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The New Year's Day edition of the Home Town Chronicle features local citizens who made contributions to the town in the last year. Most are people like Mr. Guareschi and Holling's dad, but Holling himself wakes up to find an action shot of him as Ariel on the front page. He looks as though he's flying, and the story notes that the tights are yellow with white feathers on the butt. Holling is mortified, but his mother insists nobody will see it.
Holling's mother's soothing seems misguided—this photo is in the newspaper, so many subscribers will see it. However, the fact that she soothes Holling anyway suggests that she does love her son and wants to protect him from embarrassment, even if her method of doing so is ineffective.
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When Holling returns to school, he discovers his mother was wrong: Doug Swieteck's brother saw it and, apparently, experienced a "flash of inspiration and ambition," just like Macbeth did before he murdered Duncan. Doug himself comes back to school with a black eye and finally explains, after threats from Danny and the promise of a cream puff, that early on New Year's Day, his brother stole the front page off of every stoop, cut Ariel out of each of them, and then tried to bully Doug into helping him paint the tights yellow. Doug refused and ended up with a black eye. This didn't stop his brother though. On the first day back, Holling finds these painted photos of himself taped up everywhere in the school, from the restrooms to the trophy cases.
When Doug stood up to his brother to try to protect Holling, it suggests that Doug's home life might be not all that different from Holling's. Doug also seems to feel far more loyalty and connection to his friends at school than his blood family at home. Connecting this situation to Macbeth shows Holling using the play to make sense of his reality.
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Holling figures this will be his last day at Camillo Junior High, and considers switching to a military institute. He asks the reader to imagine walking into school, where everyone grins at you and not because they're happy to see you. Holling insists the reader cannot possibly imagine it, and to add insult to injury, Mrs. Baker gives him a 150-question test on Macbeth. Mr. Vendleri tears most of the photos down by the next morning, but Doug Swieteck's brother has a seemingly unending supply. When Holling gets home on Tuesday, Heather nabs him at the front door with one of the photos. She explains that she found it taped to her locker, and it's his fault that the photo migrated to the high school to embarrass her.
It's impossible to tell whether Holling's assessment of his peers' smiles is accurate or not. It's likely he's experiencing a great deal of teasing about the photo, but given his prior incompetence at interpreting other people’s facial expressions, it's likely that he's not correct about this. At home, Heather is cruel to Holling for embarrassing her—even though she claims to be a flower child who seeks to spread peace, love, and understanding.
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Holling decides to suggest the military institute to his dad at supper. His dad announces that the town decided to build a new junior high school, and they asked Hoodhood and Associates to submit a proposal. He continues that it's a big plus that he has a child at school, as it makes it seem as though he's already very invested. Holling interjects that he's thinking of military school, but his dad continues talking and says that he's not sure Kowalski and Associates will even bid. Holling says again that he's thinking of military school. His dad tells Holling he doesn't need to say ridiculous things twice.
Holling's dad makes it very clear that he doesn't think much of anything Holling has to say. He even flat out ignores Holling in order to continue talking about himself and his business. Holling is unaware or emotionless about his dad mentioning Kowalski and Associates, which is Meryl Lee's dad's firm. Holling is clearly ignorant about how the obvious competition between the two firms could affect his friendship with Meryl Lee.
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Heather asks why military school is ridiculous, and their dad says that the Mets just decided to pay a player who can't hit a ball out of the infield $18,000 per year, and Holling's suggestion is almost as ridiculous. Holling's sister insists that it's no more ridiculous than the dress code at the high school: students can't wear skirts that are too short, sweaters that are too tight, or jeans that are too blue, or turtlenecks for some unknown reason—all of which is ridiculous when there's a war going on. Holling's dad says that those clothing items are banned because the students aren't hippies, and that a principal can absolutely make up rules for no reason.
Holling is completely excluded from this conversation, which shows how his family does not give him a voice to stand up for himself or argue for what he believes in. Again, this stems from the fact that Holling stands to inherit the family business, not his sister, which gives her more power and freedom to push back without consequences.
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Later, Heather comes into his room and says again that military school is ridiculous because he'd be shipped to Saigon, and soldiers come home in body bags. She starts to say that she couldn't stand it, but leaves before finishing.
For Holling's sister, the war is a very real thing that absolutely affects the people around her. The fact that Holling didn't consider this shows how disconnected he still is from the war and its impact.
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The next afternoon, Mrs. Baker returns Holling's test. She reminds him that several characters aren't actually the same, even if their names do share the same first consonant. Holling insists that Shakespeare isn't easy to read, but Mrs. Baker says that's exactly the point: Shakespeare wrote to express ideas about being human. Holling asks what Shakespeare tried to say in Macbeth, and Mrs. Baker softly says that humans are made for more than power or desire, that pride and stubbornness can lead to disaster, and malice is small and petty compared to love. Holling notes that what Doug Swieteck's brother did isn't small or petty, but Mrs. Baker insists it's just a wonderful photo of Holling playing a great part. She assures him people will soon forget about it.
Holling's attitude here and his unwillingness to think more critically about what Macbeth might mean recalls the way that he initially discredited Shakespeare as boring. Now that his life seems far more dramatic than even Macbeth, it's simply not worth his time to seriously consider the play. Again, Mrs. Baker is able to look at the bigger picture: she knows that what Doug's brother did is, in fact, small and petty, and it won't last forever, even if it seems like a death sentence right now to Holling.
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Holling sighs and says that it's easier to say that than to see your own face in the pictures, and then says that it's not Mrs. Baker's photo, and she doesn't have much to worry about. Her face turns white and she sends him away to correct his exam. Holling feels extremely dumb, and the feeling doesn't lift as he walks home under cold, gray clouds.
Holling's shame comes from the split-second realization that Mrs. Baker has plenty to worry about: her husband is in Vietnam. The fact that Holling didn't think of this shows how little he's thinking about the war at all and how self-centered he still is.
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In bed that night, Holling listens to the rain, which by morning, turns to ice that covers the town. When Holling walks to school, he discovers that he can slide on the ice and "ski," especially since there are no cars out. As Holling approaches the school, he sees Doug Swieteck's brother waiting for buses so he can grab the bumper and let the buses pull him around on the ice. Holling explains that the buses were on the roads because according to Mr. Petrelli, Mr. Guareschi insisted that all students would take the Achievement Tests, even if atomic bombs started falling.
When Mr. Petrelli relays what Mr. Guareschi said, it sounds like an exaggeration. However, the reader can probably trust Mr. Petrelli to relay Mr. Guareschi’s comment accurately. As an adult and a voice of reason in the novel, Mr. Petrelli has far more clout and is far more reliable than Holling. This, however, does reinforce Holling's reading of Mr. Guareschi as single-minded and power hungry, given how much he evidently cares about these tests.
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Because of the ice, buses trickle in all morning, which makes Mrs. Baker mad. To make matters worse, the school and much of the town have no power, so the students huddle in their coats using the light from the windows. Holling hears Sycorax and Caliban in the walls and wonders if they're going to attack. Mrs. Baker and the other teachers drill their students all morning in preparation for the tests until lunchtime, when Mrs. Bigio enters the room with a tray filled with cups of hot chocolate. Mrs. Bigio walks through the desks allowing the students to each take one. Mai Thi doesn't take one or even look at Mrs. Bigio, and Mrs. Bigio doesn't pause. Mrs. Baker calls the class back to attention, and Holling wonders if anyone else saw her put her own cup on Mai Thi's desk.
When Mrs. Baker gives Mai Thi her own hot chocolate, it's a way for her to tell Mai Thi that she cares about her and doesn't support or approve of Mrs. Bigio's cruelty. The fact that Holling notices these silent exchanges suggests that he's more observant at times than his narration gives him credit for, which shows that he's beginning to grow up and consider the world around him.
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By afternoon, the clouds are full and heavy with snow, and it finally begins to snow as school gets out. Mrs. Baker reads the class a memo from Mr. Guareschi before she releases them. It says that all students should plan on attending school for the Achievement Tests the next day, no matter the weather. As Holling leaves school, he realizes that Mrs. Baker didn't say a word to him all day, and he feels dumb and ashamed.
Though what Holling said to Mrs. Baker was insensitive, it's very likely that he's focusing on the interaction far more than Mrs. Baker is, if she is at all. She has 22 students to deal with, which makes it seem much less dire or suspicious that she didn't speak to Holling all day.
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That night, the power outage continues. Holling's mother chain-smokes out a window; his dad furiously sits at the phone fielding calls from people asking if the firm will be closed the next day; and his sister wallows in her misery since she's missing the Beatles' television special and will have to walk home at the same time as Holling the next day, since the Achievement Tests take an hour longer at the high school. In the morning, Holling's family hears on the radio that school is still open, and he starts his walk to school early, dressed in layers of thermal underwear and socks.
Here, Heather again behaves a whole lot like her father, given how torn up she is about missing a television show and the possibility of Holling embarrassing her. However, the fact that she's missing the Beatles' special brings her liberal politics back to the forefront; much of their music criticized the war and the conservatism of the period.
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Holling sees Doug Swieteck's brother riding the bus bumpers again. Something snaps in Holling as he watches, and when he sees Doug's brother coming by again, Holling prepares a snowball. When the bus passes, Holling's snowball meets Doug's brother's face perfectly, and Holling is safe in his classroom before Doug's brother even gets the snow out of his eyes. Holling happily takes his test all morning.
This snowball is one of the first times that Holling stands up for himself, which shows him beginning to grow up. However, the sneaky nature of this attack does make it clear that Holling isn't truly self-confident yet, since he still feels the need to hide himself.
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At lunch, the power comes back on. The radiators soon warm the classroom, and Holling begins taking off his outer layers an hour later. By the last sections of the test, Holling feels as though his fingernails are sweating, and he asks to go to the restroom so he can take off his soaked thermal underwear. Mrs. Baker informs him that students cannot leave the test except for health emergencies, which Holling feels is excessive but doesn't fight.
It's entirely possible to argue that this is a health emergency, given Holling's descriptions of how hot he is. However, it's worth keeping in mind that this could all be exaggeration as well, given how prone Holling is to overstating how things affect him.
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Finally, at 2:30 P.M., the students hand in their tests. Holling races to the bathroom to escape his soggy underwear, but upon entering the bathroom, he finds Doug Swieteck's brother and other eighth grade boys smoking. One says, "that's him," and Doug's brother asks Holling if he threw the snowball. Holling lies, but Doug's brother tells Holling he's dead. Holling backs out of the bathroom and returns to Mrs. Baker's classroom, still wearing his soggy underwear.
The eighth grade boys’ cigarettes reinforce just how bad they are—smoking in the bathroom is a fairly common bad boy trope. This begins to bring more literary elements into Holling's life, whether he realizes it or not.
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Outside, it's snowing, but the snow turns to ice as soon as it hits the ground. Mrs. Baker teaches "strong verb systems" in the afternoon and doesn't call on Holling, even when he raises his hand. When school ends, Holling suspiciously looks around for Doug Swieteck's brother and enjoys the cold air. He heads out past the buses, which are struggling to drive on the ice, and notices that the penitentiary crowd isn't there either. Holling also notices a photographer taking photos of the spinning buses.
For the reader, the absence of Doug Swieteck's brother and his friends is a red flag that something is going to happen, and that Holling's suspicion is probably warranted. This suggests that Holling's self-absorption isn't always a bad thing necessarily, and he's not always wrong to feel that someone is out to get him.
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Holling barely knows what happens next due to the snow falling so hard. When he reaches the corner, he finds Doug Swieteck's brother and the penitentiary crowd, all holding huge yellow snowballs. Suddenly, a school bus struggling for traction slides across the intersection towards Holling and Doug's brother. As Holling turns back towards Doug's brother, he notices Heather crossing the street, directly in the line of the bus. Holling races towards her, pushes her away, and flies through the air as the bus hits him. He opens his eyes to see his sister, Mr. Guareschi, and Mrs. Baker looking down at him. Mrs. Baker tells Heather to hold Holling’s head while Mrs. Baker gets her car to drive to the emergency room. She snaps at the penitentiary crowd, who miraculously reappear, to help her get Holling into the car.
When Holling saves his sister without even a second thought for his own safety, it suggests that there's more camaraderie and loyalty between the siblings than Holling has let on thus far: he must truly care for her to risk his life to save her like this. Mrs. Baker and Mrs. Guareschi demonstrate how much they care about their students’ wellbeing, given that they lead Holling's transport to the emergency room. Mrs. Baker's power is also evident when she makes even the penitentiary crowd help her move Holling.
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When Holling is settled, Mrs. Baker heads for the hospital. She drops Heather off at the Perfect House to inform Holling's parents of what happened, and she ushers Holling into the emergency room at the hospital. The nurse there is somewhat shocked to see a child brought in by a teacher and a principal instead of parents and insists she'll need to speak to Holling's parents first. Mrs. Baker calls Holling's dad and returns with an angry look on her face. She informs Holling that his dad approved any necessary procedure, but sees no need to come since Mrs. Baker evidently has things under control.
With Holling's dad refusal to come to the hospital, Mrs. Baker once again must act like a parent for Holling. Mrs. Baker's anger shows that she has a problem with Holling’s parents’ neglect and has other ideas of how family should function.
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Holling, Mrs. Baker, and Mr. Guareschi wait for hours. When a nurse turns on the television, Holling notices Mrs. Baker anxiously watching the images of soldiers in Vietnam, looking for a sign of Lieutenant Baker. Soon after, a nurse X-rays Holling's hips and proclaims him fine but bruised. Mrs. Baker drives Holling to the Perfect House, where Holling's mother thanks her for bringing him home. Holling finds the late edition of the Home Town Chronicle on the counter, which features a photo of him, leaping through the air to save Heather—whose buttocks is the only part of her visible in the photo.
When Holling observes Mrs. Baker watching the TV for signs of her husband, it emphasizes the fact that the war deeply impacts her since her husband is involved and in danger. While the nightly newscast is insignificant for Holling, for Mrs. Baker, it always holds the possibility of learning that her husband is alive or dead.
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The next day, Holling is sore but happy when he gets to school. Someone taped up photos of his heroic photo, and everyone smiles at him.
Again, it's impossible to know, but it's likely that Holling feeling like a hero himself causes him to read his classmates' smiles like this.
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