Though Holling Hoodhood suggests that his family has always been somewhat dysfunctional, this dysfunction comes to the forefront over the course of Holling's seventh grade year as a result of the dramas of small town life and business competition between Holling's dad and other rival architecture firms. By exploring some of this dysfunction and, specifically, the ways in which Holling's parents are absent from his life in meaningful ways, the novel questions the consequences of this kind of neglect. The novel ultimately shows how, in the absence of loyal family members, others can fill in as chosen family.
The reader's first introduction to Holling's family comes in the form of an introduction to the Perfect House, the beautiful Colonial-style house where the Hoodhood family lives. Holling's dad keeps the exterior painted perfectly white, the flowers are well watered, and the house is exactly in the middle of town. This last quality, per Holling's understanding, means that the house—and his family by extension—exists on an island of sorts. This is reinforced by the fact that Holling's family is Presbyterian, while much of the rest of the town and Holling's classmates in particular are either Jewish or Catholic. In turn, this magnifies Holling's sense of loneliness in school and at home, as he is truly different from his other classmates.
Though the Perfect House looks flawless from the outside, Holling exposes a world inside that is decidedly not perfect. His dad is self-important, mean, and controlling, and he does whatever he can to control his children, wife, and the house to create the appearance of a "perfect" family. He openly mocks Holling's sister, Heather, for her liberal politics and desire to be a hippie, and he regularly tells Holling that his thoughts and feelings are stupid. Holling's mother, on the other hand, secretly chain-smokes and appears scared of her husband, even to the point where she won't help her children for fear of her husband's reaction. This puts Holling and his sister in a position where they must look both outside the family and to each other to find the love and support they need and desire. Most notably, when Heather runs away and gets stranded in Minneapolis, Holling is the one who saves her—something that neither of their parents would do, either out of spite or fear. After this experience, Holling and Heather begin to reevaluate their previously contentious relationship, particularly as the world seems to collapse around them with the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. Even more telling is that following these deaths, they light candles in the local Catholic church—a clear indicator that they must look outside even their own Presbyterian church family for a sense of community.
This idea of chosen family expands to Holling's experiences at school as well, both in terms of his personal relationships and the relationships he watches his classmates form with other adults at the school. Though Holling begins the school year believing that Mrs. Baker and even the rest of his classmates are out to get him, he comes to realize that they're the ones that support him when Holling's parents are absent. Mrs. Baker takes Holling to the emergency room when he gets hit by a bus, and Holling is shocked to see Danny, Meryl Lee, and Mai Thi in the front row for his performance in The Tempest—and most surprisingly, they're crying in awe, not laughing at him like he expected. With this, Holling learns that these other individuals can fill in the gaps where his family falls short, and in many ways, he comes to realize that these people are often kinder and more reliable than his own parents. Holling watches a similar relationship and sense of trust develop between Mai Thi, a Vietnamese refugee in his class, and Mrs. Bigio, the school cook. Though Mrs. Bigio is unspeakably cruel to Mai Thi after her husband dies in Vietnam, over the last few months of school, Mrs. Bigio and Mai Thi begin to regard each other with interest and understanding, especially after Mrs. Bigio apologizes for her cruel words and racism. This culminates in Mrs. Bigio asking Mai Thi if she'd like to move in with her and out of the refugee house, an offer that would make Mrs. Bigio and Mai Thi truly chosen family. When Mai Thi accepts, it stands as a testament to the power of generosity and understanding, and most importantly, being able to humbly admit that one has been wrong before—something that Holling's dad is never able or willing to do, which in turn keeps him from understanding his own children or wife in a way that would allow him to have strong, trusting relationships with them.
Taken together, the many different relationships shown in The Wednesday Wars present a number of different forms that family can take, from Danny Hupfer's huge extended family to the much smaller, chosen family that Mrs. Bigio and Mai Thi form. In all cases, however, the novel makes it clear that though it's impossible to choose one's own blood family, people still have the power to choose who they call family—and those chosen family members can be the most loyal and supportive of all.
Family Quotes in The Wednesday Wars
How do parents get to where they can say things like this? There must be some gene that switches on at the birth of the firstborn child, and suddenly stuff like that starts to come out of their mouths.
"So, Holling, what did you do that might make Mrs. Baker hate your guts, which will make other Baker family members hate the name of Hoodhood, which will lead the Baker Sporting Emporium to choose another architect, which will kill the deal for Hoodhood and Associates […]”
I guess it didn't matter to them that the Bing Crosby Christmas Special was on television tonight, the way it mattered to my parents, who would never, ever miss it. I guess the Hupfers thought that a Shakespeare debut was a whole lot more important than hearing "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas" one more time—even though Mr. Hupfer was loosening his tie and holding his hand over a yawn.
But Doug went on in, and he came back out carrying the cardboard box for Number 166 from the Coat Room. He looked at us, shrugged, and hauled it away down the hall, staggering under its clumsy weight.
Doug wouldn't tell us what he said when he saw the pictures and the can of yellow paint. All I know is that he wouldn't help, and so took a black eye […] Whatever it means to be a friend, taking a black eye for someone has to be in it.
"It's not a ridiculous idea because of why Dad thinks it's a ridiculous idea. It's a ridiculous idea because it's military school, and because the next stop after military school is Saigon."
When Mrs. Baker came back, her face was set and hard. "Your father has spoken over the phone with the nurse at the front desk. He has given approval for any necessary procedure, and says that, since everything seems under control, he will be along as soon as may be convenient."
[…] right then a whole series of low chords sounded from the piano in the Perfect Living Room below us, followed by a roar and crash as the entire newly plastered ceiling fell, smashing down on top of the baby grand piano, ripping the plastic seat cushions, flattening the fake tropical flowers, tearing the gleaming mirror from the wall, and spreading its glittering shards onto the floor, where they mixed with the dank, wet plaster that immediately began to settle into the carpet to stain it forever.
And that's when something changed. I suddenly wondered if my father was really like Shylock. Not because he loved ducats, but because maybe he had become the person that everyone expected him to become. I wondered if he ever had a choice, or if he had ever felt trapped. Or if he had ever imagined a different life.
You know things are bad when the United States Marine Corps is using stethoscopes and divining rods.
Still, the White House announced that the enemy offensive was running out of steam, that casualties at Khesanh were light, that we would never give up the marine base there.
I was glad he was running for president.
And so maybe, after all, I had done something to make my father mad. Just not out loud.
"The whole world is going crazy," my father said, "and no place is crazier than college. You'll stay at your job and be safe."
For supper, my mother set only three places. She did not cook lima beans. She did not say anything while my father swore up and down […] Didn't she realize that this didn't help his business reputation or his chances for the Chamber of Commerce Businessman of 1968, which that creep Kowalski was trying to steal from him?
"Would you mind not calling me 'Mr. Hoodhood'? It sounds like you're talking to my father."
That's when I knew for the first time that I really did love my sister. But I didn't know if I wanted more for her to come back or for her to find whatever it was that she was trying to find.
I could tell that Mrs. Baker was wanting to try it. It was probably getting hot on the open rocks above the falls, with the sun coming straight down now […]
It's got to be hard to be a teacher all the time and not jump into a pool of clear water and come up laughing and snorting with water up your nose.
"You think that's how you become a man, by chanting a few prayers?"
"You think you become a man by getting a job as an architect?"