The Wednesday Wars is set against the backdrop of the political turmoil of 1967 and 1968: at this time, the United States was expanding its involvement in the Vietnam War, while the Cold War with Russia caused Americans to fear an atomic bomb attack. Students at Columbia University were protesting the war and rallying for the presidential run of Bobby Kennedy, while Martin Luther King, Jr. led his March on Washington—and both were assassinated early in 1968. Though Holling is too self-absorbed and ignorant at the beginning of the novel to think he's truly affected by these major political events of the era, this doesn't mean that he's insulated from them. He watches them affect everyone around him, from his conservative father to his teacher, Mrs. Baker, whose husband is fighting in Vietnam. In this way, the novel examines how major events like these affect someone—particularly a young person—who doesn't necessarily see themselves as affected, and in a more overarching way, explores how these major events can lead to a greater sense of community for those impacted.
As Holling comes of age over the course of the novel, he gradually begins to think of the war as something concrete and, most importantly, something that has major consequences for those around him—regardless of what small-scale tragedies befall him. These tragedies, as far as Holling is concerned, are both constant and the end of his life as he knows it, as when Doug Swieteck's brother humiliates him when Camillo Junior High returns from their Christmas break. Doug Swieteck's brother was the first to discover a photo of Holling in his role as Ariel from The Tempest on the front page of the local paper and subsequently stole every front page to then paste them up around the school. This is, of course, a major source of embarrassment for Holling, which in turn makes him even more self-centered than usual. To escape the humiliation, Holling suggests to his family that he transfer to a military academy. Later, when Mrs. Baker assures him that the uproar will pass, he insists offhandedly that she doesn't understand, as she doesn't have much to worry about. In the case of his comment to Mrs. Baker, Holling realizes almost immediately how self-centered he was: her husband, Lieutenant Baker, is fighting in Vietnam. This begins to put in perspective for him that though the war might seem far-off to him, it is a major source of anxiety and worry for many people around him. After Holling mentions switching to the military academy, his sister, Heather, becomes uncharacteristically emotional. She tells Holling that the next step after graduation would absolutely be Vietnam, and offers statistic on how many soldiers are "being sent home in body bags." She insists that she couldn't stand if that happened to Holling, impressing upon him that the war isn't just something that affects people like Mrs. Baker. Even if the war doesn't mean much to Holling now, it has the potential to affect him just as deeply.
Because Holling spends Wednesday afternoons at the school alone with Mrs. Baker, he ends up being privy to a great deal of information about his teachers' personal experiences of the war. He watches Mrs. Baker and Mrs. Bigio receive telegrams containing information about their husbands in Vietnam and sees both women experience extreme, unguarded grief. These moments underscore the human cost of the Vietnam War and prepare Holling for the grief he experiences when Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. are assassinated. All of these experiences lead Holling to seek out companionship from those around him. Holling and Heather's visit to the local Catholic church to light candles after Bobby Kennedy dies, as well as the visceral descriptions of Mrs. Baker and Mrs. Bigio's moments of grief, create the undeniable sense that the upheaval and uncertainty of the time period impact everyone, even Holling.
The experience that completes Holling's realization that the war does indeed impact him specifically comes when Mrs. Baker pulls Holling out of a Wednesday afternoon atomic bomb drill to look at points of local architectural interest. As they drive through the town, Holling feels fully entrenched in the history of his community and comes to the shocking realization that should a bomb drop, everything that he knows—including himself—will be gone. Mrs. Baker explains that even though sitting under a desk won't do anything if an actual bomb drops, practicing and feeling prepared for events like this offers people a sense of comfort. When Holling lights a candle afterwards and prays for the wellbeing of his friends, family, and Mrs. Baker's husband, it shows that he finally recognizes the impact the conflicts around him can and do have on him—and that the only way to cope with the impact is to reach out, form community, and both lean on and provide support for others.
The Vietnam War and Political Unrest ThemeTracker
The Vietnam War and Political Unrest Quotes in The Wednesday Wars
"Must all history center around your own personal experience, Hoodhood?" Mr. Petrelli asked.
Everyone—except for Caliban—is happy, and everyone is forgiven, and everyone is fine, and they all sail away on calm seas. Happy endings.
That's how it is in Shakespeare.
But Shakespeare was wrong.
Sometimes there isn't a Prospero to make everything fine again.
And sometimes the quality of mercy is strained.
"Pick it up and be glad you're getting it. You shouldn't even be here, sitting like a queen in a refugee home while American boys are sitting in swamps on Christmas Day. They're the ones who should be here. Not you."
Mai Thi took her Something. She looked down, and kept going.
She probably didn't see that Mrs. Bigio was pulling her hairnet down lower over her face, because she was almost crying.
"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."
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.
It also didn't help that Mrs. Baker kept wiping at her eyes during her grading. She'd told us that she had a terrible cold, but she hardly needed to tell us. Her eyes were mostly red all the time, and the way she blew her nose could be pretty impressive. Sometimes while sitting at her desk, she'd just stop doing whatever she was doing and look somewhere far away, like she wasn't even in the classroom anymore.
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."