The Wednesday Wars

by

Gary Schmidt

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The Wednesday Wars: May Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
May is Atomic Bomb Awareness Month. During the morning announcements, Mrs. Sidman notes that since they live very close to New York City, which would be a major target for a bomb, students must follow drill procedures exactly. The siren goes off on many afternoons, and Mrs. Baker instructs the students to sit hunched under their desks quietly in the dark for 18 minutes. Holling notes that after 18 minutes, in the event of a bomb, most of the truly toxic and dangerous stuff would've passed by, burning everything but the carefully scrunched students.
Holling's tone is very clearly sarcastic when he describes what would happen in the event of a bomb. This suggests that he's aware that the drills are pointless—in the event of a bomb, being under a desk won't do anything—but he's willing to do as he’s told in the name of preserving his classmates’ sense of comfort.
Themes
Coming of Age Theme Icon
The Vietnam War and Political Unrest Theme Icon
Reading and Learning Theme Icon
When Mrs. Sidman praises Mrs. Baker's class, Holling thinks it's kind of comforting. He notes that the eighth grade cross-country runners certainly need comfort, as they're still upset over Holling's win. They put shaving cream in his locker and hang his clothes from the ceiling. Holling wonders if eighth graders have a gene that switches on when they get to that grade that makes them jerks, and thinks that Hamlet is very similar to them. Hamlet, according to Holling, wasn't smart enough to listen to the ghost's warning.
When Holling wonders about the eighth grade gene, it indicates that he still thinks of some people as being one-dimensional. Thinking of the eighth graders as having a gene that makes them mean, rather than thinking of them as jealous or insecure human beings, is a way for Holling to ignore that they do have feelings and are people as well.
Themes
Coming of Age Theme Icon
On May 3, Holling's dad opens up the Home Town Chronicle to discover that Kowalski and Associates is going to renovate the Yankee Stadium, a multi-million, three-year job. His dad concentrates on his lima beans during dinner. When Heather points out that lima beans have killed lab rats, his dad remarks that she's obviously learning more than enough at home and doesn't need to attend Columbia. He declares that she'll go to Columbia when lima beans fly, so she promptly throws one.
It seems that Mrs. Baker succeeded in her quest to help the Kowalski family secure the Yankee Stadium job. In this way, Mrs. Baker also gets back at Holling's dad for his cruelty to Holling and the Kowalski family.
Themes
The Vietnam War and Political Unrest Theme Icon
Reading and Learning Theme Icon
Holling's dad buys a new Ford Mustang the next day. Holling thinks he bought it to comfort himself. Every night after the news, he takes Holling's mother for a drive, and leaves it parked in the driveway so Chit can't park his VW bug there during the day. Holling wonders if the car was actually any comfort, though, when Heather leaves for California to "find herself." Supper that night is quiet, and Holling's mother doesn't cook lima beans. His dad rages that he'll never help Holling's sister, and running away isn't helping his reputation or his chance to get Chamber of Commerce Businessman of 1968. That night, Holling's parents don't go for a drive. Holling wonders what it's like for his sister.
For Holling's dad, the Mustang is a symbol that he has it all: perfect family, perfect house, perfect car, while Chit's VW bug is seen as a symbol for the liberal youth movements of the era and must therefore not be seen in his driveway. Notice too that Holling's dad seems more upset that his daughter's running away will hurt his own reputation more than anything else. When Holling's mother doesn't make lima beans, it's one way for her to stand up to her husband and express her displeasure.
Themes
Family Theme Icon
The Vietnam War and Political Unrest Theme Icon
Related Quotes
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The Wednesday Wars PDF
The Perfect House becomes quiet, and Holling's dad stops watering the azaleas. His mother stops cooking lima beans, and they all stop talking. Holling describes the silence as being very similar to what happens in Hamlet. Holling finds Hamlet boring and slow, so he starts skipping over the boring monologues. Meryl Lee finds this a questionable strategy, but Holling is so convinced of his genius he even admits his reading strategy to Mrs. Baker. She insists there are no boring parts in Shakespeare and tells him to read it again.
It's telling that Holling's dad begins to neglect the house in his daughter's absence; it suggests that she was a necessary part of the perfect family image—and now that she's gone, it's not worth trying. Holling's selective reading strategy is one that privileges his own perception and doesn't give him the whole story, and essentially represents his youth still.
Themes
Coming of Age Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Reading and Learning Theme Icon
The next afternoon, a bomb siren goes off again. As everyone scrunches under their desks, Danny snippily asks Mrs. Baker why she isn't under her desk. Holling explains that Danny's attitude is actually pure terror regarding his upcoming bar mitzvah. He's inconsolable about it and insists that his family will shun him if he messes up even one word. Meryl Lee, Mai Thi, and Holling decide to help Danny by spending every lunch recess listening to him practice his readings, even though they don't understand the Hebrew.
The bar mitzvah (or bat mitzvah for girls) is a coming of age ceremony in Judaism, which means that Danny is preparing to symbolically become an adult in his religious community. The presence of these coming of age rituals indicates that growing up is a societal concern.
Themes
Coming of Age Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
The bomb sirens go off again one Wednesday afternoon. Holling folds himself up under his desk, and Mrs. Baker declares that this is ridiculous. Holling asks Mrs. Baker if she'd call him "Holling" rather than "Mr. Hoodhood," as it sounds like she's talking to his dad. Mrs. Baker sits down at Danny's desk, and Holling explains that he doesn't want to become his dad yet. Mrs. Baker says she saw Holling's drawing and declares he has "the soul of an architect." She suggests that Holling is afraid he won't get the chance to decide for himself whether he even wants to be an architect.
Earlier in the novel, Holling wondered if his dad, like Shylock, only became the way he is because he felt like he had no other choice. When Holling asks Mrs. Baker to call him by his first name, it's a relatively small but meaningful first step that will allow Holling to make choices about who he wants to be and avoid what he believes happened with his dad.
Themes
Coming of Age Theme Icon
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Related Quotes
Mrs. Baker declares the bomb drill ridiculous again. She heads to the Coat Room and Holling suddenly hears a crash: the crock of cider from Thanksgiving, which has been fermenting since then, falls and splatters everywhere. Mrs. Baker sends Holling to fetch Mr. Vendleri, who cries that they can't stay in a classroom that smells like a brewery. Mrs. Baker insists that they must go on a field trip then to survey "points of architectural interest."
Mrs. Baker's proposed field trip suggests that she's going to teach Holling to "read" architecture in much the same way she's taught him to read Shakespeare: essentially, that there's more to it than what it might seem at first glance. This shows too that Mrs. Baker has much more to her than even just being a teacher and a track star.
Themes
Coming of Age Theme Icon
The Vietnam War and Political Unrest Theme Icon
Reading and Learning Theme Icon
Mrs. Baker drives to the north side of town, where she points out a Quaker meetinghouse from 1676 that was later used as a station on the Underground Railroad. She points out the first jail on Long Island and a clapboard building where British soldiers stayed during the American Revolution. At Temple Emmanuel, she explains that the temple is the fourth built on the same site, and the ark holding the Torah survived every fire that destroyed the temples. Finally, she points out the first abolitionist school, which helped end slavery through education. At that, Holling marvels that he didn't know buildings could hold so much in them. He feels as though he's seeing his town for the first time, and he feels the weight of the history around him.
Just as Holling learns that Shakespeare is relevant to him, almost 400 years after the plays were first published, he now learns that these buildings are still relevant hundreds of years after they were built. They hold his town’s history, and now that Holling is aware of said history, he can feel like a more integrated member of the local community. Holling is learning to read these buildings as more than just four walls to shelter people.
Themes
The Vietnam War and Political Unrest Theme Icon
Reading and Learning Theme Icon
When they pass Saint Adelbert's, Holling suggests they go in. He's never been in a Catholic church before, and he's struck by the fact that people have been praying here for a hundred years. He asks Mrs. Baker if she orchestrated Kowalski and Associates getting the Yankees Stadium job. She refuses to answer. Holling asks if an atomic bomb drops, if everything will be gone. Mrs. Baker pauses and says that's true, and she agrees when Holling says that it doesn't matter if they're under their desks or not. He asks why they even practice then, and Mrs. Baker says that it gives people comfort to feel prepared, especially when it feels like there's little else to do.
Mrs. Baker recognizes that creating meaning out of a seemingly meaningless, nonsensical situation like a war is extremely important to maintain a sense of purpose. She also understands that humans desperately want to cling to comfort, as seen by the way the administration makes the children practice atomic bomb drills by hiding under the desks.
Themes
Coming of Age Theme Icon
The Vietnam War and Political Unrest Theme Icon
Reading and Learning Theme Icon
Holling and Mrs. Baker light candles. He prays that bombs don't drop on his town and that Lieutenant Baker, Danny, and Heather are safe. When he gets home that afternoon, everyone else is gone. Holling realizes that the biggest hole in the house is his sister's absence and wonders if it takes losing something to know you love it. He realizes he does love his sister, but he can't decide if he wants her to come back or find herself.
Holling's love for his sister plays out differently than Holling's dad's does. Holling's love for Heather acknowledges that she's a full person with thoughts, feelings, and desires, while their dad sees her only as an extension of himself. Holling's love is cast as the superior kind, suggesting that loving someone means allowing them the freedom to be who they want to be.
Themes
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Related Quotes
Late that night, when Holling is the only one awake, Heather calls. They both start crying, and she manages to say that she's in Minneapolis alone, with only $4. She doesn't know what to do, since a bus ticket to New York City costs $44.55, and she asks Holling to not tell their parents. Holling asks if there's a Western Union there, and his sister can't find one. Right before the call cuts out, Holling tells her to go to the nearest Western Union station.
After his lessons with Mrs. Baker, Holling now has the confidence to come up with a plan and put it into action, an indicator that he's gaining self-confidence and maturity. The fact that Holling's sister calls when she knows Holling will pick up shows that the two are close, despite their bickering, and they trust each other more than Holling's narration let on.
Themes
Coming of Age Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Reading and Learning Theme Icon
The next morning, not knowing if Heather heard his instructions or not, Holling creeps around the Commerce Bank and waits for it to open at 10 A.M. When it opens, he cashes his $100 savings bond in for $52 and then runs down the street to the Western Union. He discovers there that Minneapolis has two bus stations, and he decides to send the money to his sister at the Western Union on Heather Avenue. Holling spends the rest of the afternoon hiding around town, thinking about his sister and hiding from his dad and Mrs. Baker.
Even though Holling's desire to hide is absolutely justified, it's also possible that Mrs. Baker would fully support his show of familial loyalty, given the ways she's shown up for Holling. Holling's dad, however, would absolutely be incensed: Holling not being in school will, per his understanding, reflect badly on him.
Themes
Coming of Age Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Finally, on Friday night, Holling gets a call from his Heather saying she's on her way. He tells his dad and his mother at breakfast on Saturday morning that his sister will arrive in New York City at 10:50 A.M. Holling's mother's eyes fill with tears, and his dad asks how she's planning on getting home. Holling asks if he'd go get her, and Holling's dad refuses. He says the keys are on his dresser if Holling wants to go himself and laughs.
It's more important to Holling's dad to make a point than support his family in meaningful ways, which continues to develop as an almost inhumanly cruel character. Holling's mother's tears suggest that she actually does love and want to support her children, but she's possibly too scared of her husband to stand up for what she believes is right.
Themes
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Holling grabs the keys to the Mustang and tries to convince his mother to drive them. When she refuses, he goes and sits in the car for a minute. His mother taught him how to drive, but only in parking lots. Holling comes back into the house and sits down. Suddenly, Meryl Lee calls: her dad is going to the Yankee Stadium and wanted to know if Holling wants to come. When Holling asks, Mr. Kowalski offers to drop Holling off at the station on his way. Holling asks his mother for money for train tickets and lunch, and she gives him the money.
Again, Holling's mother's refusal to drive him, even in light of her very clear emotions and feelings about the whole situation, suggests that she's afraid of her husband—meaning that the relationship between Holling's parents is more dysfunctional than Holling ever let on. This again shows how limited Holling's perspective is; he cares more about how his dad treats him than he does about the particulars of his parents' relationship. Once again, Holling has to rely on his chosen family for help and support.
Themes
Coming of Age Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
When the bus from Chicago arrives, Holling is already at the station. When Heather gets off the bus, the noise of the station seems to stop and doesn't start again until they're hugging each other. She cries that she was afraid she wouldn't find Holling, and Holling tells his sister that he'll always be there. They have grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch and walk around Central Park. Holling talks about the bomb drills and Hamlet, and Heather tells him that in Minneapolis, she got out of Chit's bug and refused to get back in. Later, when they take the train back home, their mother makes burnt grilled cheese sandwiches. Holling's dad asks Heather if she found herself, and Holling answers that she found him.
When Holling answers his dad instead of letting Heather answer, it's the first time that he truly stands up for himself and those he cares about—a sign that he's coming of age and gaining confidence. Their mother's grilled cheese sandwiches, although burnt, is a small way for her to show her love and that she cares for her children, even if she didn't feel able to actually support them this time.
Themes
Coming of Age Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
The Vietnam War and Political Unrest Theme Icon
Reading and Learning Theme Icon
Holling tells the reader about the end of Hamlet: everyone is dead, and it's hard to believe that Hamlet will find rest in death. He wonders if Hamlet should've stopped trying to find himself, and just let someone else find him. On the last Wednesday of May, Mrs. Sidman brings Mrs. Baker a telegram. Mrs. Baker shakily opens it and reads, "sweet eyes…stop." She makes a happy sound that Holling says is the happiest sound he's ever heard. Mrs. Sidman leads Mrs. Baker to get a drink of water, and Holling reads the rest of the telegram. It's from Lieutenant Baker himself, saying he'll be home in time for strawberries.
The poetic nature of Lieutenant Baker's telegram suggests that like his wife, he's also a fan of poetry and Shakespeare. This gives more depth to Mrs. Baker's character, as it offers a small possible glimpse into what her relationship with her husband is like. Mrs. Sidman shows here that she's a kind and caring friend to Mrs. Baker, while the fact that Mrs. Baker reads the telegram in front of Holling shows that they've developed a sense of trust and openness with each other.
Themes
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The Vietnam War and Political Unrest Theme Icon
Reading and Learning Theme Icon