Monday, April 22, 2013

Review : The Wednesday Wars

Think back to when you were a child.  Surely at one point or another we all dreamed the hero daydream, where bullies backed away from us in the halls, teachers and adults praised our genius, teammates carried us around on their shoulders after we singlehandedly won the big game.  You know the drill.  All that stuff that would never happen, we just hoped that maybe someday. I remember, and this will seriously date me, that I would someday appear on Johnny Carson because I was just so very precocious, and Johnny would be amazed at how smart I was at such a young age.

The Wednesday Wars plays out like a Shakespeare geek's version of the hero daydream.  Our narrator, seventh-grader "Holling Hoodhood", has to read The Tempest ... and takes away from it the knowledge that most of Caliban's lines are Shakespearean curse words.  So he spends the rest of the book muttering "toads...beetle...bats!" when he's angry at the situation, sometimes going so far as to shout "The red plague rid you!" at his enemies.

And you know what happens?  Do the bullies of the school all point and laugh and call him an even bigger nerd, knock his books down and give him a wedgie?  Oh no, patient reader!  In this our hero's daydream the bullies think that these newfangled curses are cool, and it's only a matter of time before Shakespeare is heard up and down the hallways.   I wish!

There's an even funnier scene when our hero needs a favor from a grownup, who just happens to be in charge of the upcoming Shakespeare show.  "What I need," says the grownup, "What would really save the day?  Is to find a 12year old boy that knows his Shakespeare!"  Because, you know, that happens. :) And then there's the scene where he gets to play ball with the Yankees.  Yeah.

Much of this story's structure has been told before. A middle school student growing up in the 60s, having to deal with the teacher that hates him, the bullies that want revenge after he "takes one out", an older sister who threatens death if he ever comes into her know, the usual.  If that's all it was, I'd have no interest in this book.  It is still a young adult book, narrated in that voice, and I found it overly redundant in many points.  It's cute in places (like when Holling's most pressing concern over his Shakespearean debut is the fact that his costume has feathers on the butt).  But his obsession with these things, while right in character for a 12yr old, tried my patience on more than one occasion.

What makes this book special is Holling's relationship with his teacher, Mrs. Baker, who has him working through Shakespeare as part of a special extra assignment.  There are bits in the beginning (as noted with Caliban's curses) where it's amusing to watch him get into Shakespeare, but it's not long before they're taking on bigger and more important issues like "The quality of mercy is not strained" from Merchant. All this is set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War (Mrs. Baker's husband is missing in action, and Holling's older sister is considering becoming a flower child).

It's here that we go from "hero's daydream" to "Yes, yes, I wish life was more like this."  Everything that happens to Holling has happened and will continue to happen to all young adults at the stage of life.  I'm jealous of him because he's got Shakespeare (and Mrs. Baker) by his side. I mean, come on, he takes a date to Romeo and Juliet  ... and she likes it!  In middle school!

All kidding aside there is a wonderful story being told here, in particular as the narrator's relationship with his sister evolves. I've heard that there might be a sequel in the works, and I'll definitely put that one on my list as well.  I want to live vicariously through this kid.

This year's Shakespeare Day Celebration is sponsored in part by Shakespeare Is Universal: Shakespeare truly is for everyone, and nothing demonstrates that sentiment better than his most famous quote of all, translated here into languages from around the world.   In celebration of Shakespeare's birthday, show that you believe his works are just as relevant, powerful and important as they've ever been!

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