Even though Mrs. Baker openly despises camping, she still agrees to take her class camping to celebrate the end of the school year. She's done this every year, though Holling reasons that since Lieutenant Baker usually went too, he probably liked camping and Mrs. Baker just went for his sake. Despite her hatred of camping, Mrs. Baker smiles all the time after getting news that her husband is coming home. Holling even heard about Lieutenant Baker's miraculous rescue on the evening news and reasons that it's like what happened in The Tempest.
Here, Holling better understands Mrs. Baker’s complexity and humanity. He realizes that she hates camping but goes anyway because of her deep affection for her husband. This realization underscores Holling’s coming of age, but it also adds depth to Mrs. Baker’s understanding of family. To her, family members make sacrifices for each other out of love—something Holling’s parents clearly do not do for him.
In the weeks leading up to the trip, Mrs. Baker keeps her class working hard. She even makes Holling read Much Ado About Nothing, which Holling is disappointed to discover is not funny, even though it's supposed to be a comedy. He tells the reader how the main couple, Claudio and Hero, fall in and out and back in love. He says it's ridiculous, and in real life, people don't fall out of love all at once. Instead, he says, they stop serving lima beans and the house grows quiet and sad.
Much Ado About Nothing offers Holling a way to think more critically about his parents' strained relationship. He also understands that his mother’s cooking (specifically when she serves lima beans) is a way for her to show love, and the absence of lima beans means that his parents' relationship is dissolving.
Holling reasons the real world is often more like Hamlet: scared and angry. He thinks the world is often like Bobby Kennedy, who Holling says was a sure bet for president but got shot at point-blank range. When Heather hears the news, she locks herself in her bedroom and puts on the Beatles song "Eleanor Rigby." After the fiftieth repetition, Holling knocks on her door and leads her to Saint Adelbert's. They wait in line to light candles and cry with the others in the church. The next morning, they hear on the radio that Bobby Kennedy died. Holling thinks that if he hadn't heard the good news about Lieutenant Baker, he would've given up on being a Presbyterian.
When Holling leads Heather to the Catholic church, it shows that he's experimenting with looking outside his own Presbyterian church community to find comfort and human connection. This emphasizes the way that his limited worldview is broadening as he matures. In addition, it seems that his assertion about giving up on his Presbyterian faith if he hadn’t heard good news about Lieutenant Baker might also apply to his family life. Perhaps Holling would have given up on his family, too, if he hadn’t heard good news about Heather being safe and wanting to come home.
The next Thursday morning, Holling's class gleefully boards the bus and heads to the Catskill Mountains. When Mrs. Baker stops Doug's attempt to sing "One Thousand Bottles of Beer on the Wall," Holling insists that it was an ominous beginning to the trip. They reach the trailhead an hour later, and Mrs. Baker and Mrs. Sidman distribute packs of food and supplies to the students to carry to the campsite. She gives Holling a pack containing utensils and chili and instructs him to not let anything happen to it. When he asks what could possibly happen, she references Much Ado About Nothing and implies that many things could happen.
Holling's self-assuredness is comical and implies that something bad is, in fact, going to happen. The fact that Mrs. Baker has to remind Holling of this shows that he's still naïve and young, and even though they do view each other more as equals now, Mrs. Baker is still an authority figure and a mentor.
The trail is mostly uphill. Holling is the last person in line, right behind Mrs. Sidman, who picks up dropped sweatshirts and water bottles. The cutlery pokes Holling in the back and he seethes—Doug's pack contains only marshmallows. Finally, the pack begins to feel lighter and Holling stops getting poked in the back not long before they reach the campground. Mrs. Baker organizes the site: Doug digs a fire pit and then latrines (far away from the camp), while Mrs. Sidman organizes a wood-gathering expedition. Meryl Lee cooks hot dogs for lunch as Mrs. Baker asks for the chili. Holling heads for the latrine and finds it very peaceful until he hears Mrs. Sidman yelling his name.
The fact that Mrs. Sidman is picking up so many dropped items suggests that it was a mistake to put Holling in the back, especially since the cutlery mysteriously stops poking him during the hike. Clearly, the utensils fell out of his pack, but Holling's lack of understanding of why the utensils stopped poking him highlights his ignorance and self-assuredness.
Holling's old pack had split and steadily dropped utensils, meaning that the entire class has only one spoon with which to cook and eat. He dropped the can opener, too. Mrs. Baker leads Holling to the river, where they use sharp stones to split the cans open. Despite the setback, Mrs. Baker is still smiling. Mrs. Sidman grumbles, and she cuts three fingers trying to extract the chili. While Holling discovers a way to eat using hot dogs as utensils, Mrs. Sidman stains her favorite sweater. Holling reasons that this is why she sends him to wash the dishes.
Mrs. Baker's smile in the midst of the setbacks illustrates the power of family and of love: just knowing Lieutenant Baker is coming back is enough to give her an unflappable positive attitude, unlike poor Mrs. Sidman. Even though Mrs. Sidman might be "punishing" Holling by making him do dishes, notice that he's not necessarily feeling wrongly targeted by some evil person. This is a major evolution for him, as this is the first time he doesn't feel attacked in a situation like this.
Meryl Lee helps with the dishes. At the river, she and Holling splash each other, washing most of the chili off. When they get back to camp, they stand by the fire to dry. Swimming was on the itinerary for the afternoon, but a breeze picks up, and clouds cover the sky. The class plays Capture the Flag and then explores an abandoned house. Afterwards, it's even colder, so Mrs. Baker prepares hot chocolate. Mrs. Sidman grumbles about having only the spoon to turn over hamburgers for dinner. She burns the rest of her fingers turning them, and Holling and Meryl Lee do dishes again.
Just as on the Ides of March, the increasingly ominous weather on the field trip suggests that something bad is going to happen. This is yet another literary trope that colors Holling's experience, reinforcing the idea that literature is relevant to real life.
After supper, as night falls, the students stoke the fire and stand around it. Mrs. Sidman tries to tell ghost stories, but none of them are actually scary. Holling wonders if it's impossible for principals to tell good ghost stories. After her unsuccessful story, Mrs. Sidman tells the students what to avoid in the woods. Nobody pays attention when she talks about mosquito bites or bee stings, but everyone is terrified when she mentions poisonous snakes. She says that a snake bite will make the victim's leg swell to the size of a melon, and any student who gets bitten might die, even if they do take her special antidote in time.
Holling attributes Mrs. Sidman's failure to tell a compelling ghost story to her position as a principal rather than the possibility that she's just not a good storyteller. This shows that Holling still has the impulse to view people as one-dimensional sometimes, even though he’s getting better. To Mrs. Sidman's credit, there are very poisonous snakes in the Catskill mountains—though it appears as though she's milking her explanation to punish the students or compensate for her lackluster ghost story.
Doug looks ready to pass out with exhaustion, and Danny declares he's staying up all night. Mai Thi, Meryl Lee, and Holling help stoke the fire and sit with Mrs. Baker well past midnight. They don't say anything until suddenly, a downpour begins. There's no escaping it. As they try to save their sleeping bags, students yell and ask if snakes come out in the rain. Mrs. Baker goes into the tent with Mrs. Sidman, but the students stay out in the rain all night. In the morning, Mrs. Sidman scolds the students for using so much wood. She cooks scrambled eggs with a stick, and Holling and Meryl Lee wade right into the river to wash the pots after she makes chili. Only Doug eats it.
Staying up with Mrs. Baker shows that these students have formed a close, almost familial relationship with their teacher, especially given the companionable silence Holling describes. When Mrs. Sidman scolds the students in the morning, it suggests that she actually is the one who hates camping, not Mrs. Baker.
By this point, the sky begins to clear, and it starts to warm up. Someone suggests swimming, and the entire class changes and heads for the river. Mrs. Baker and Mrs. Sidman supervise as the students all jump over the waterfall and into the pool below. Holling can tell that Mrs. Baker wants to try it, and he thinks that it must be hard to always be a teacher and not be able to do fun things like swim. Everyone eats lunch and then heads back to the waterfall.
As Holling considers how difficult not getting to play must be for Mrs. Baker, it again shows him humanizing her and thinking of her as a person, not just a teacher. It's also a very empathetic thought, showing his progress in thinking about other people besides himself.
Even though they've been in the woods for a day and a half, Doug declared upon arrival that he would, under no circumstances, use the latrines. However, after two meals of chili, he finally gives in. When he returns, Holling and Mrs. Baker notice that a cloud of mosquitos is following Doug. Mrs. Baker rolls her eyes, and everyone runs away from the mosquitos. The mosquitos are relentless, and the students huddle in groups, taking turns letting one person be safe in the middle. Holling lets Meryl Lee take his turn, and she smiles brightly at him.
When Holling gives his turn to Meryl Lee, it indicates that he's beginning to prioritize others over himself, which is another way that demonstrates his coming of age. It shows also that he's thinking more about the wellbeing of his greater community, suggesting that his classmates have given him a better understanding of family and community than his own blood family has.
Mrs. Bigio arrives as the students are busy fighting off the mosquitos. Fortunately, she has a can of bug spray. After spraying the students, she sends them to re-wash the pots and bring back flat stones. When Holling returns from this task, he sees Mai Thi staring at Mrs. Bigio's ingredients. She asks if Mrs. Bigio is making thit bo kho, and Mrs. Bigio says she is, though she couldn't find lemongrass. Mai Thi helps Mrs. Bigio make the wonderful stew, which everyone gets to eat with spoons.
Making this Vietnamese dish is a way for Mrs. Bigio to show Mai Thi that she truly cares about her and thinks she's worthy of respect and acknowledgement. Mai Thi's shock and awe suggests that she hasn't experienced much kindness like this, which implies that the greater community has not been very accepting toward her because of racism and the war.
Holling and Meryl Lee again wash the pots, and they're still at the river when Mrs. Bigio and Mai Thi arrive to wash the knives. Mrs. Bigio tells Mai Thi that she's late arriving at camp because she was at the Catholic Relief Agency. Mrs. Bigio stutters as she says that she has a small house where she now lives alone, and Mai Thi is welcome to live with her if she wants. Mai Thi throws her arms around Mrs. Bigio.
By asking Mai Thi to come live with her, Mrs. Bigio is essentially asking Mai Thi to officially become her chosen family. This profound act of love can happen because Mrs. Bigio humbly admitted her wrongs and did whatever she could to make up for it, suggesting that this is the only way to heal emotional wounds.
Holling doesn't sleep that night. He watches the stars and thinks about Mai Thi, Mrs. Bigio, Lieutenant Baker, Danny, and how in five years, he'll have to register for the Vietnam draft. When dawn arrives, Holling slips out of his sleeping bag and walks down to the river. He wades in and looks at the sun, which turns the river into a ribbon of beauty. Holling doesn't tell anyone about his trip to the river, as he believes it was more beautiful than anyone could understand.
When Holling recognizes that he'll have to sign up for the draft in five years, he shows that he understands that the war does affect him and has the power to change his life. In this way, Holling is truly coming of age, as he now feels connected to not just his local community, but the world at large.
A week later, Holling watches Danny step up in front of the full synagogue at his bar mitzvah. Holling's dad even came, as did Mrs. Baker, Mrs. Bigio, and Mrs. Sidman. Danny pulls his prayer shawl around his shoulders. He looks terrified as he carries the Torah to the reading desk, then suddenly, as Danny begins to sing and read from the Torah, Holling watches Danny become more than an overenthusiastic boy. Holling feels that Danny is taking his place in a huge choir made up of everyone who has ever sung these words, and he watches Danny become a man.
Holling's interpretation of Danny's coming of age mirrors how the novel asks the reader to consider Holling's relationship to Shakespeare. Just as Danny is doing as he reads the Torah, Holling comes of age as he joins the thousands of other people who have read Shakespeare’s works and found meaning from them. This is a testament to the transformative power of stories and reading.
After the ceremony, Holling's parents and Heather decide not to stay for the party. Holling walks them out to the car, and his dad says that Holling must be glad to not have to do something like a bar mitzvah. Holling says he guesses he's glad, and his dad is disbelieving—he doesn't understand why Holling would want to stand up and "chant at people." Holling says that Danny became a man, and that becoming a man doesn't mean getting a job as an architect. His dad stiffens and says that's exactly how a boy becomes a man: he gets a job and provides for his family. Holling retorts that growing up is about choosing your own path, and his dad asks Holling who he is. Holling thinks of Bobby Kennedy and says that he'll let them know when he finds out. His dad slams the car door, his mother blows him a kiss, and Heather smiles.
It appears as though Holling will get a happy ending, given that he has significantly matured and stood up to his dad. However, the fact that Holling's mother and Heather openly disagree with Holling's dad suggests that there will be more troubles at home before the Hoodhoods can have a happy ending. Despite this, it's important to note that Holling is extremely self-aware, as he recognizes that he's not yet done coming of age.
Holling goes back inside the temple. Danny is smiling, as is everyone else. He dances with Meryl Lee, who says that something seems different about Holling. Later, he goes to get Meryl Lee a Coke and finds Mrs. Baker standing with a strawberry, smiling. He tells the reader that he decided to break the rule that forbids talking to teachers outside of school and asks Mrs. Baker if she really thinks Lieutenant Baker will be home for strawberries. She says she's sure, agrees that teachers know the future, and asks if Holling wants to know his future.
Holling's coming of age is not complete, considering he still believes students shouldn't talk to teachers outside of school. Of course, he has broken this rule many times, as Mrs. Baker was with him at Opening Day, the hospital, and the camping trip.
Holling says he doesn't want to know the future, but he asks how Mrs. Baker knows that Lieutenant Baker will come home. She reminds Holling of Don Pedro, standing alone at the end of Much Ado About Nothing. Everyone else has a happy ending, but Don Pedro has to go on and deal with a traitor, and the fate of his country is at stake. When Holling reminds her sarcastically that this is a "great comedy," she says that comedies aren't about humor: they're about characters that know they can choose a happy ending. She says that Don Pedro knew he was loved. A ring dance starts, and Holling says "l'chayim!" to Mrs. Baker as he runs off to dance with Meryl Lee. She smiles a real smile at him and praises him.
In Mrs. Baker's interpretation of the ending of Much Ado About Nothing, she suggests that the most powerful thing a person can do is to believe that they're loved, which is what allows them to have a happy ending. This teaching holds true for Holling’s own evolution throughout the course of the novel. He has learned to accept Mrs. Baker and Meryl Lee’s love, and he learned that he loves Heather, and that she loves him, too. In this way, Holling has stepped outside his narrow worldview and can now find his own happy ending.
Eleven days later, Lieutenant Baker comes home. All of Mrs. Baker's class is on the tarmac holding boxes of strawberries when the plane lands. Holling refuses to say what Lieutenant Baker and Mrs. Baker did, but curses any reader who can't figure it out. He says it was a happy ending.
Even though Holling refuses to give up his control over his narration, he now challenges the reader to come to his or her own conclusions about what happens. Of course, it is fairly clear that Holling is just embarrassed to tell the reader that Lieutenant Baker and Mrs. Baker kissed.