Gary Schmidt’s Newbery-honor-winning The Wednesday Wars featured 13-year-old Holling Hoodhood, a child of the mid-1960s and the only Presbyterian in a private school filled with Catholics and Jews. Holling sits out Wednesday afternoons (when all the other kids are at catechism or Hebrew school) in a classroom with Ms. Baker, who hates his guts. Or so he thinks—actually she’s just a really good teacher, who challenges and inspires him by making him read a different Shakespeare play every month.
Doug Sweiteck, Holling’s after-school buddy and fellow Yankees fan, gets to be the hero of his own book, Okay for Now. Doug has a lot of strikes against him, including his mean brother and his boorish, insensitive Dad. As the story begins, the family is moving from Long Island, where Doug could at least catch a Yankees game now and then, to Marysville—make that “stupid Marysville”—where nothing happens. Strike three–Terrific. Doug’s attitude sinks lower and lower and could ultimately doom him to a withered existence like his father’s. But then something grabs his imagination: full-size, full-color plates from an early edition of Audubon’s Birds of North America displayed in the public library. With the plates comes his first adult friend in Marysville, Mr. Brooks the librarian, who offers to teach him to draw. Once Doug is hooked, the town reels him in with all kinds of lures: books, drama, rowdy but lovable little kids, a girl who turns out to be really special, a first kiss. With all this outward stimulation Doug blossoms, finding within himself resources of kindness and good sense and ingenuity that give back something of what he’s received.
But every time life starts looking up for him something always happens to drag him down, and the something usually has to do with his family, especially his dad. The only code of ethics Dad seems to have is “Don’t be a chump. Everybody’s out to get you.” He displays no redeeming qualities whatsoever, but his badness seems mostly of a routine, self-centered kind—until Doug is forced to reveal something the man did to him when he was twelve. It has nothing to do with sex (that’s what we first think of, isn’t it?) but it’s deeply disturbing all the same. It actually made me furious: What kind of father would do that? And laugh about it?
In spite of Dad, and “my brother” who isn’t named until he does something decent, and the “so-called gym teacher” likewise, there’s a lot of good in this story–but perhaps too much story. As in The Wednesday Wars, Schmidt crams so much in that when the wrap-up starts, plot threads tie up with unseemly haste and the sun shines a little too relentlessly. Except for that thing that happens at the very end.
Gary Schmidt, the last I heard, teaches English at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, a center of Reformed Christianity. He may be a Reformed Christian himself (see his beautiful retelling of Pilgrims Progress). The redeeming power of art (e.g., Shakespeare, Audubon) is a recurring theme in his work, and he mines the inherent decency in people as if to show the image of God under the surface ugliness caused by evil in the world. But the Bible tells us that ugliness is not only on the surface; it’s at the heart. As one disagreeable adult after another begins to show their noble side in Okay for Now, I’m thinking, If Dad comes around, I’m not believing this. Dad comes around. I’m not believing.
It’s not that a person can be too rotten for God to reach. Even Dad can be redeemed, but minus a Damascus-road experience, the process is going to be slow and painful. Doug’s father evidently had his own rough childhood, which stunted his vision and narrowed his affections, but that’s all the more reason why change will be slow, and may have to be incited by something more dramatic than the incident portrayed. The story is all about hope–“the thing with feathers,” according to Emily Dickinson, capturing as she does so well the fluttering but persistent character of human optimism. But hope in what? Hints of a transcendent presence (i.e., God) appear at the very end; up to then it’s cold Cokes, baseball, black-backed gulls and snowy herons, curmudgeony playwrights, large noisy families, classic novels, art, and a loving (if frustratingly passive) mom. All these are worth celebrating, and I appreciate Schmidt’s celebration of the goodness of life. He’s just not so convincing about the badness.
- Worldview/moral value: 3.5 (out of 5)
- Literary value: 4