The Wednesday Wars

by

Gary Schmidt

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The Wednesday Wars: November Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
November arrives with gray skies and rain. Holling and his dad prep the Perfect House for winter, and Holling's mother discovers a leak in the ceiling of the Perfect Living Room. When Holling's dad touches the ceiling to inspect it, part of the ceiling falls down on his face. Holling figures that all the rain is what inspires Mrs. Baker to assign The Tempest next, but he says that her plot to bore him failed spectacularly. The Tempest is almost as good as Treasure Island since it has storms, witches, revolutions, drunkenness, and a monster named Caliban. Holling figures that Mrs. Baker likely hasn't read it herself, because if she had, she'd never let him read it.
The leak in the living room mirrors the Hoodhood family’s dysfunction: it's hidden from view most of the time under the pretense of perfection, but it will eventually come to light and have negative repercussions. Meanwhile, it's a comical thought that Mrs. Baker hasn't read The Tempest, which shows that Holling still thinks he's still more important and more clever than he actually is.
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Holling is especially taken with Caliban's curses, which are fantastic. Holling decides to learn them all by heart, so he practices them in his bedroom every night after supper. By the second week of practicing, Holling feels he's perfected several curses. On Tuesday night, Holling's dad and mother knock on the door, but both leave when he say he's practicing a speech for Mrs. Baker. When Heather knocks on the door, Holling uses one of Caliban's curses on her. She throws the door open and tells him to be quiet. Holling decides to go to school early the next day so he can practice.
The fact that Holling is willing to bend the truth here to keep doing what he wants to do (practicing Caliban’s curses) shows that he's already starting to give weight to his own desires rather than immediately bending over backwards for other people. This shows that Holling is beginning to grow up and value his own thoughts, opinions, and passions.
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When Holling gets to the third floor the next day at school, he finds Mr. Vendleri holding a ladder with Mr. Guareschi on it, placing traps in the ceiling. As Mr. Guareschi sets the trap, it springs onto his fingers and he falls off the ladder, cursing. Holling suggests he try, "the red plague rid you!" or, "scurvy patch," but his suggestions are met with blank stares. Mr. Guareschi sends Holling to class and climbs back up the ladder.
Holling is entirely unaware that suggesting Shakespearean curses is somewhat strange, which underscores his naivety: nobody else cares about these curses, no matter how much they might matter to him.
Themes
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Holling and Mrs. Baker listen to the rats scuttle in the ceiling for a moment, and Mrs. Baker swears Holling to secrecy. Holling sits at his desk and whispers curses into his lap. Mrs. Baker insists he share what he's been whispering, and finally, Holling admits that he was whispering, "strange stuff, the dropsy drown you." Mrs. Baker points out that the line doesn't appear that way in the play, and Holling admits he liked the rhythm of it. Mrs. Baker says that she does too and turns back to her grading. Holling is shocked that Mrs. Baker recognized the curses—this is proof she's read the play, which means her plot is quite devious.
In Mrs. Baker's eyes, the fact that Holling is so interested in Shakespearian curses is probably a good thing—it means he'll be more receptive to her lessons, continue to enjoy what they're reading, and hopefully decide that she might even be trustworthy. The fact that he's coming up with his own Shakespearian-style insults also shows that he's beginning to synthesize what he's learning and make it his own.
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Holling decides to slip Caliban curses more naturally into conversation. He curses at his sad lunch, Doug Swieteck's brother, and the smell of the boys' restroom. In Geography, Mr. Petrelli introduces a project called "The Mississippi River and You." Holling insists he's never been to the Mississippi, and when Mr. Petrelli asks if history has to center on Holling, Holling curses to himself. In Chorus, Miss Violet asks Holling to sing a soprano part. Holling curses at both Danny and Meryl Lee as he moves forward, and Meryl Lee takes great offense. She grabs Holling's arm and demands he repeat himself, but he sings as though his life depends on it. Finally, Miss Violet tells Meryl Lee that she didn't move Holling so she could flirt with him. Meryl Lee grinds her foot into the top of Holling's.
By assigning the “Mississippi River and You” project, Mr. Petrelli wants his students to feel as though these places and historical events actually mean something to them, rather than just existing in a vacuum or a textbook. However, the title “The Mississippi River and You” also reinforces Holling’s self-centeredness and overblown sense of importance.
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Holling's foot is very painful when he goes to Gym. As Coach Quatrini berates the students to run faster, Holling calls him a “pied ninny” under his breath. Doug Swieteck's brother hears and asks Holling what it means. Holling fumbles before saying that it means someone was stupid and ate a bunch of pies. Doug's brother thanks Holling and runs off.
"Pied ninny" actually just means a fool. The fact that Holling doesn't actually know what the curses mean shows that even though he does find them fascinating, he's more interested in using the curses for his own entertainment than actually learning about them.
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In the afternoon, Mrs. Baker gives Holling a 150-question test on The Tempest. Holling listens to Sycorax and Caliban in the ceiling as he works and hands his test in with five minutes to spare. When he's finished, Mrs. Baker grades it. The first few questions are wrong, but after that, most are right. When she's finished grading, Mrs. Baker tells Holling to read the play again and review what he missed on the test. As he walks home, Holling thinks that despite this disappointment, he's had an okay Wednesday.
When Holling does well on the test, it tells both him and Mrs. Baker that even if he focused mostly on the curses, he did actually learn something and pay attention to the play as a whole. Further, Holling's positive assessment of his day shows that his perspective on reading Shakespeare is shifting, and it's no longer a boring chore.
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However, as Holling limps past Goldman's Best Bakery, he notices cream puffs in the window and remembers that he owes his class cream puffs. He decides to ask for an advance on his allowance. Holling feels he has a fighting chance when he learns his dad got the Baker Sporting Emporium contract. As his dad dances around the house, Holling asks—and his dad says no. That night, Holling dreams that Caliban is sitting on his bed and threatening him, so Holling decides that he'll stop by the bakery after school and see what he can do about getting cream puffs.
Holling's dad's refusal to give Holling an advance on his allowance shows that he doesn't care about the things that are important to Holling. The fact that Holling even dreams about following through on his word shows that he has a very strong sense of responsibility to his promises, even if the promises themselves are misguided.
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At Goldman's Best Bakery, Holling puts $2.45 on the counter and asks to buy 22 cream puffs. When Mr. Goldman reminds him he needs almost $3 more to buy that many cream puffs, Holling offers to work to make the additional money. Mr. Goldman says he can work himself, but he really needs a boy who knows Shakespeare. Holling is shocked and shares that he knows Shakespeare. Grandly, Holling recites some lines from The Tempest, and Mr. Goldman is thrilled. With this, Holling gets roped into being part of the Long Island Shakespeare Company's Holiday Extravaganza and gets 24 cream puffs for half price.
The serendipitous nature of Holling's exchange with Mr. Goldman feels very theatrical, which introduces the motif of Shakespearean moments happening in Holling's real life. This will begin to impress upon Holling that literature does indeed have a place in the real world, and it can provide meaning to these real-world events.
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On Monday morning, Holling walks to school with a box of fresh cream puffs. Mrs. Baker says nothing, but she and the rest of the class look at the cream puffs all day. When lunch arrives, everyone eats quickly. Danny gets up and approaches the cream puffs, but Mrs. Baker insists that everyone must go outside for recess and come in early to eat the cream puffs. The class shuffles outside.
Mrs. Baker's insistence on making her students wait for their treat is obnoxious for the students, but it reinforces her commitment to imparting lessons and a sense of discipline wherever she can.
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With seven minutes left in recess, everyone heads back inside. When they get to the door of the classroom, they stop: Sycorax and Caliban are in the cream puff box, covered in powdered sugar and vanilla filling. Mrs. Baker stops behind the class and screams Shakespearean curses, and the rats race into the radiators and back into the walls. Meryl Lee, Mai Thi, and Danny tell Holling he has ten days to get more cream puffs, and Mrs. Baker makes him clean up the mess.
The fact that Holling just can't catch a break reinforces, in his eyes, that the world is out to get him. It adds to his sense of loneliness that he feels he experiences because of his religion (being the only Protestant in school) and the Perfect House, showing how the dysfunction and sadness of his home life seeps into his school life as well.
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The week before Thanksgiving is an awful week for Holling. His classmates whisper about him after the cream puff incident, and when he goes to pick up his script and costume for The Tempest, he learns he's going to play Ariel. Ariel is a fairy, and the costume includes yellow tights with white feathers in an unmentionable place. Holling tries to refuse the part, but Mr. Goldman insists. Later, when Holling tries to ask his dad for an advance on his allowance, his dad says that no son of his would ask for something so ridiculous.
Holling's mortification at learning he'll play a fairy is indicative of his youth and desire to fit in with his classmates: being a fairy and wearing tights would not help his already precarious social standing. Further, his unwillingness to share where the feathers are shows that he's filtering his narration for the reader, reinforcing his unreliability as a narrator.
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The next day, when Holling complains to Meryl Lee that his dad is being a cheapskate, especially since he just got the Baker Sporting Emporium contract, she starts crying and runs away. To make matters worse, Mr. Guareschi comes into Mrs. Baker's room and asks what "pied ninny" means, since Doug Swieteck's brother is in his office after calling a teacher a pied ninny. On Wednesday, Holling's classmates are murderous when he brings in only five cream puffs. However, when the class returns from recess, there's a box from Goldman's Best Bakery filled with two dozen cream puffs. Mrs. Baker explains that Holling was playing a joke on everyone.
Though Holling is unaware at this point, Meryl Lee's dad owns the rival architecture firm in town, and the fact that Holling's dad won this contract means that Meryl Lee's dad lost the contract. Meryl Lee's reaction suggests that this is detrimental for her family, and Holling's self-centeredness keeps him from inquiring further and being a good friend. However, Mrs. Baker's heroism here shows that she certainly doesn't hate Holling.
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That afternoon, Mrs. Baker asks Holling if he thinks the ending of The Tempest is happy or not. Holling says it is, but when Mrs. Baker asks if Caliban deserves a happy ending, Holling declares he doesn't—he's a monster, so he must be defeated. Mrs. Baker wonders if it might've been possible for Caliban to get some sort of redemption, since he represents just how awful humans can be, and sometimes, that awful, defeated part can grow and become better. Holling says that defeat is just defeat; it doesn't help anyone grow. Mrs. Baker mentions that NASA is testing rockets months after losing three astronauts and puts her book away.
Holling's assessment of Caliban shows that Holling thinks of people as being very black and white—one is either a monster or a hero; there's no middle ground. This offers the reader a starting point to track Holling's maturation, as this is a very simplistic and childish view. In contrast, Mrs. Baker's suggestions represent a more adult and nuanced view of the world. Further, Mrs. Baker can apply what she learned from the play to the real world, which is something that Holling hasn't yet done.
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Holling thanks Mrs. Baker for the cream puffs, and she smiles at him. Suddenly, Mrs. Bigio enters the classroom. She leans on the doorway, trembling. Mrs. Baker asks if they found "him," and Mrs. Bigio nods and begins sobbing. Holling says he can't explain what it sounded like. Mrs. Baker embraces Mrs. Bigio and sends Holling home. The next day, Holling learns that Mrs. Bigio's husband died in Vietnam. Three weeks later, a photo of Mrs. Bigio accepting a flag at his funeral graces the front page of the Home Town Chronicle, and two days later, the paper runs a photo of the Catholic Relief Agency, where Mai Thi lives, with "GO HOME VIET CONG" spray-painted on it.
When Holling thanks Mrs. Baker for the cream puffs, he begins to humanize her and think of her as more than a mean teacher. Seeing Mrs. Bigio's overwhelming grief shows Holling that there are true human costs to the Vietnam War, even if they don't mean anything to him personally right now. However, the war does affect his classmates, as evidenced by the racist, hateful graffiti at Mai Thi's home.
Themes
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Holling explains the ending of The Tempest: everyone except for Caliban gets a happy ending, and everyone is forgiven. He says that Shakespeare is wrong, and sometimes there isn't someone like Prospero to fix things. Sometimes there is no mercy.
With this assessment, Holling shows that he believes the real world isn't reflected in Shakespeare's plays. Over the course of the novel, however, Holling’s perspective will shift.
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