As a happy Catholic who is involved in media, I try to keep my ears open for positive portrayals of religion in any setting: movies, television, and especially books. Religion in literature tends to be more honest than movies or TV. It’s very easy to toss a cross around a character’s neck or pan past some Hasidic Jews, making a comment and saying nothing at the same time. Books have to be more straightforward. I decided to get back to my beloved YA roots with this review, and I found an honest depiction of religion woven into a coming-of-age story well deserving of its many accolades.
The premise of The Wednesday Wars, by Gary D. Schmidt, drew me in (along with an enthusiastic review from a fellow YA addict who’s more A than Y). Holling Hoodhood, in addition to being saddled with a ridiculous name, also suffers the agony of Presbyterianism. In his 1960s junior high school on Long Island, half the class goes to Temple Beth-El for Hebrew school every Wednesday afternoon, and the other half (even Mai Thi, a Vietnamese refugee sponsored by CRS) goes to St. Adelbert‘s Parish. Left alone with his teacher, Holling reads and discusses Shakespeare. True to YA, he learns a lot about life at the same time.
The Wednesday Wars has so much in its favor. The plot moves along at a steady pace, guided by the rhythm of the school year. History creeps in as the New York Yankees succeed, the Vietnam War rages on, and politicians are assassinated. Authentic male narrators are rare, especially ones such as Holling who can still appeal to female readers. Beneath the story lies the perfect dose of humor. When Holling lies, he justifies his half-truths as what God must owe him for making him a Presbyterian. (Apparently a Presbyterian lie isn’t as bad as a Catholic or Jewish one.) Mrs. Baker, Holling’s teacher, always has a good trick up her sleeve. Holling can never seem to catch a break. Everything is expected and unexpected.
As a religious reader of a book with religious themes, I appreciate that Schmidt doesn’t let Holling’s story go by without dipping into religion a few times. Holling’s best friend, Doug, sweats his way through his successful bar mitzvah. Not once do we go into Saint Andrew’s Presbyterian to get the live version of Pastor McClellan’s stuffy sermons, though. In a touching scene, Holling and Mrs. Baker visit St. Adelbert’s together, lighting candles.
“Let’s go in,” I said.
Mrs. Baker paused. “Would your parents approve?” she asked.
“It’s a point of local architectural interest,” I said.
So we went in.
It was the first Catholic church I’d ever been inside, mostly because Catholic churches are supposed to be filled with idols and smoking incense that would make you so woozy that you’d give in and start praying on your knees, which Presbyterians know is something that should not be done. But it wasn’t like that at all. … I lit a candle in a Catholic church for the first time that afternoon. … I hoped that it was okay to pray for a bunch of things with one candle.
I think it is just as okay to “pray for a bunch of things with one candle” as it is to cover a bunch of aspects of growing up in one novel. Schmidt manages this quite well, proving his novel a worthwhile read for any adult, both young and not-so-young.