Monday, July 21, 2008

Beat the Pied Ninnies

Warning: The book reviewed here contains Shakespeare: talk of Shakespeare, lines of Shakespeare, performances of Shakespeare. You may think, “UGGHH, man, could there be a more dull thing in a book than old and creaky Shakespeare?” I’ll admit that the old English bard is sometimes confusing. Shakespeare can also be dusty and boring. The plays and their antique language are more often daring, fun, and enlightening. The Wednesday Wars, at its heart, is about learning to love Shakespeare, but it’s also about a lot of other things. This isn’t one of those books that wants to slip you some medicine that’s good for you in something grossly sweet like Tang. Instead, it’s a coming-of-age story with real laughs, compelling conflict, and a good heart.

“Toads, beetles, bats,” Holling Hoodhood grumbles, (yes, quoting old Shakes) facing yet another pickle on the pages of Gary D. Schmidt’s The Wednesday Wars. Holling is constantly jumping from one challenge to another. You’ll jump from page to page, wanting to know how Holling gets himself out of his newest pinch.

The book is set in 1967, a time when wannabe flower children in America’s suburbs were beginning to rebel against their conservative parents. The Vietnam conflict was escalating in Southeast Asia, and everyone in America knew someone personally touched by tragedy. War, the Civil Rights Movement, the dramatic clash of identity and changing American culture was narrated by Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News, played out in everyone’s living room, and is vividly depicted in The Wednesday Wars.

The first chapter begins by setting up the conflict suggested by the book’s title. Holling is the only Presbyterian in a seventh-grade class full of Jewish and Catholic kids. On Wednesday afternoons half of his class would leave Camillo Junior High to go to Hebrew school and the other half would go to Catechism at Saint Adelbert’s Catholic Church. That left Holling by his lonesome self with his teacher, Mrs. Baker. In the beginning, both loathed these one-on-one afternoons, yet it’s from this time that Holling is forced to discover some hard earned truths. Mrs. Baker introduces Holling to Shakespeare, and it takes time for Holling to run with it. He’s busy trying to not get slammed by bullies or busses, scheming to stay on the good side of a girl he reluctantly digs, and quietly negotiating some family drama. Delving into the plot much more than that would give away this book’s good tricks and treats. A lot of things happen in The Wednesday Wars. In fact, if there’s anything that takes away from the pleasures of this book it’s that so many things happen to Holling and those around him, at such breakneck speed, that it’s hard to absorb the story in its totality.

Gary D. Schmidt, the author, is an English professor at Calvin College in Michigan. The Wednesday Wars and his book, Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, both received a Newbery Honor, which is quite a big deal. (You’ve probably seen Newbery Award and Honor books around—they’re the ones in the bookstore embossed with a round silver seal.) The Wednesday Wars is the only book of Schmidt’s that I’ve read, but I just went out and bought Lizzie Bright. All I know is that it has something to do with Maine, which is where this reviewer lives, and that’s all I can write about it at the moment.

Of course you’ll learn something by the end of The Wednesday Wars. You’ll learn that the quality of a life without Shakespeare is measurably less than a life lived by accepting the challenge of attempting to understand one of the greatest writers in the English language. You’ll also learn that the themes woven into the fabric of Shakespearian plays are also the things we struggle with now: family, love, comedy, and tragedy. The Wednesday Wars is about rising to the challenge of living a life in full. Reading about Holling Hoodhood’s courageous attempts and many missteps in growing up is well worth your own rise to a life, hopefully, in full. It’s all about beating the pied ninnies. If you want to know what that means, you’ll just have to read the book.


Anonymous said...

As a diehard Shakespeare fan (and fan of Gary Schmidt), I'd say you did a bang-up job with this review.

Becker said...

I'd also like to recommend the audio version of this book--its wonderful to listen to Holling's Shakspearean curses out loud!

K. M. Johnson said...

Thanks for the comments, Kelly and Becker. I heard a bit of the audio version. At first, I was not a fan of the reader's take on Holling's voice, but then I started to appreciate the reader's enthusiasm and his presentation of other character's voices. All in all, I enjoyed the bit that I heard on the audio cd.