The year is 1967. Holling Hoodhood enters seventh grade fearing the worst. On Wednesday afternoons, half of his class attends Hebrew school while the other half go to Catechism class, leaving him (the only Protestant) alone with his homeroom teacher, Mrs. Baker. Things wouldn’t be so bad if Holling wasn’t convinced that Mrs. Baker hated him “with heat whiter than the sun.” And even Mrs. Baker’s apparent dislike for him wouldn’t be the end of the world…had she not decided to fill their Wednesday afternoons spent together with an in-depth study of Shakespeare’s plays, beginning with The Merchant of Venice.
The rest of that afternoon, we both held our feet up off the floor and took turns reading parts from ‘The Merchant of Venice’ – even though the print was made for tiny insects with multiple eyes and all the pictures in the book were ridiculous. I mean, no one really stands as if they’re posing to be a flower, and no one would wear the stuff they’re wearing and dare to go outside.
But it turned out that Mrs. Baker’s strategy didn’t work after all! She had wanted to bore me to death, even though she said that she didn’t – which was all part of the strategy. But ‘The Merchant of Venice’ was okay.
There’s no Jim Hawkins. And the stuff about Shylock was slow at first. But it picks up with him in the courtroom, ready to cut out a pound of Antonio’s flesh because Antonio hadn’t been able to pay – which is exactly what Long John Silver would have done. And then Portia comes in and gives this speech that turns everything upside down
But mercy is above this sceptered sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings.
When Mrs. Baker read that, I had shivers running up and down my spine.
Unfortunately for Holling, Wednesday afternoons aren’t his only problem. He is unsure how to deal with his older sister Heather, a Beatles-obsessed wannabe flower child, his father, who consistently puts his job and status before his family, and “Doug Swieteck’s brother” a high school bully who definitely has it out for him. In spite of his worries, Holling begins looking forward to Wednesday afternoons (much to his surprise). Maybe he likes Shakespeare, and maybe Mrs. Baker doesn’t hate him as much as he thought!
Schmidt’s Newbery Honor-winning story is hilarious, hopeful, and well worth the read. It explores themes of friendship, family, and finding one’s voice that will make you laugh (and cry) long after turning the final page.
Works Cited: Schmidt, Gary D. The Wednesday Wars. 2007.