Archive for July, 2011

Schmidt, Gary D. The Wednesday Wars. Sandpiper. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007.

_ _ _ . Okay for Now. Boston: Clarion, 2011.

I need to think a little about these two books by the same author because they are enough like each other to operate almost as a set of variations on the same themes–as alternative versions of the same basic story. But in fact they are even more similar than that–so very much like each other that beyond a superficial level of a different setting and such, there’s a surprisingly slight degree of actual variation or of anything significantly alternative. While Okay for Now, the more recent of the two, is about a different central character, it seems to repeat events,characters, situations, linguistic turns, etc., etc. first found in The Wednesday Wars, albeit perhaps to somewhat better effect.

Most basically, Okay for Now is, sort of, a sequel to The Wednesday Wars. Doug Swieteck, the main character of Okay for Now, appears earlier in The Wednesday Wars in a relatively minor role as friend of its main character, Holling Hoodhood. But Okay opens with Doug moving to another town, after which he has no contact with Holling, and there are no other shared characters or experiences. The first question, then, is, why has Schmidt bothered to suggest a connection between them at all? Why make this fairly slight but nevertheless obvious joining of one book to the other and then never refer to it again? Why might he have chosen to announce Okay as a sequel and thus invite readers to see it as related to a book about different people in a different place?)

Perhaps it’s just a matter of letting readers know that if they liked the one book, then here’s another connected to it and therefore likely to offer similar pleasures. But that sort of “if you liked x, you’ll enjoy y” invitation really doesn’t require an actual connection between the characters. So I think that the answer has to be structural rather than character- or plot-oriented. The connection heralded by the relationship of the two protagonists is primarily a matter of the significant extent to which they echo each other as different versions of the same story.

Here are some of the things the novels have in common (and I’m fairly sure this is an incomplete list of commonalities, because I have the sense based on what I’ve noticed so far that the connections must be fairly complete–that evidence of them could be found in almost every aspect of the novels I might find myself aware of):

–The main character is a baseball-loving boy with a special affection for the Yankees who addresses readers in a first-person narrative, telling readers whom he seems to be aware of as his audience the story of his own life.
–He is in junior high in a small town not far from New York City.
–He has the cynical habit of always looking on the dark side, and a sardonic sort of pessimism, especially about teachers. He has strong opinions and theories about a lot of things, and tends to read the events he experiences as confirmations of his negative expectations. Indeed, they often are.
–He is quite witty about the awful ways of the world, but tends to hold back significant information he doesn’t like (nasty things certain adults say to him, for instance) and then acknowledge it later, after readers have been allowed to guess about what it is.
–He is an outsider, Holling as the only Lutheran in a town of Jews and Catholics, Doug as a newcomer to an apparently close-knit small town with a cocky sarcastic attitude that quickly gives him a reputation as a dangerous hoodlum (a reputation that survives from the earlier novel even though there was no one to convey it to new people but himself, his own cocky attitude, and his older brother’s apparent bad behaviour). As the stories proceed, however, both boys turn out to have so many friends and supporters that their outsider-liness quickly seems more theoretical than actual.
–Each boy has an older sibling so despised by him that he refuses to actually provide their name. The sibling’s name is finally revealed later in the novel, after events conspire to reveal the real feelings of love the protagonists and their siblings feel for each other–and after it becomes apparent to the protagonist that his sibling suffers as much or more than he does from the bad behaviour of his father.
–Both do, centrally, suffer from the bad behaviour of their fathers. The fathers tend to neglect their children most of the time and be harsh towards them otherwise. Holling’s father is mentally abusive, Doug’s physically abusive. Holling’s father believes that it’s up to him to decide what his children will be and become, whereas Doug’s father’s lack of ambition for his children tends to cause similar problems for reverse reasons. Hollng’s father gets angry when he believes Holling and his sister aren’t ambitious enough, Doug’s father get angry when he believes Doug is being too ambitious and so giving in to dumb rich people.
–Whereas Holling’s father is well off, a conservative conformist, upwardly mobile and ambitious, Doug’s father is decidedly lower-class man who perceives himself as as rebel and who has a huge chip on his shoulder about how guys like him do all the work while the stupid lazy bosses get all the benefits of it. But while behaving in these opposite ways, both fathers express their own self-involvement as the expense of their children. Both behave in ways that deprive their children of significant opportunities in their lives.
–Both Doug and Holling have a nickname for the house they live in that defines their father’s class and social aspirations: the Perfect House and The Dump. (These issues of class are one of the few areas in which the relationship between the two novels is inverted rather than just an echo, so that thematically they become class-related variations on the theme of paternal inadequacy.)
–Both fathers have a vested interest in the importance of appropriately masculine behaviour (which they understand in quite different, class-related ways, albeit both in terms of power and survival of the fittest) and become upset when their sons behave in ways they see as not adequately masculine.
–Both fathers, in other words, are jerks, and their being jerks is a central issue of each of the novels. Whereas Holling’s father never stops being a jerk, Doug’s father changes significantly and seems to realize the error of his ways. As a result, Holling’s parents seem to be heading for a divorce at the end of Wednesday Wars, whereas Doug’s seem to be getting closer than they have been in Okay for Now.
–Neither novel pays much attention to its main character’s mother. While she is a victim of her husband’s bad behaviour, she tend to be stoic and quietly accepting of it as just the way things are and must be. She allows her husband to support the family and behave badly to their children while she stays home and looks after the house.
–Both boys love their mothers and worry about how their father treats her.
–Whereas Holling has just one sibling, an older sister, Doug has two older brothers. One of them constantly bullies him just as Holling’s sister does him. The other has been at war in Vietnam and returns without legs and temporarily blinded during the course of the novel–thus representing a different aspect of Holling’s sister’s character, her involvement as an anti-war protester and her flight from and consequent return home. Whereas Holling helps his sister return home after her disastrous attempt to run away and find herself, Doug helps his older brother return home by encouraging him to get past his own deep version of the family’s characteristically cynical and self-defeating pessimism and get on with his life. In the process of these things happening, Schmidt manages to centrally portray a Vietnam war objector in one novel and a Vietnam veteran as equally caught up in and equally victimized by the politics of their time.
–In each novel, the main character manages without at first realizing it to make friends of his father’s enemy–Holling a girl in his class whose father is a competing architect, Doug the older man who teaches him how to throw horseshoes and who turns out to be the owner of the factory his father works in.
–By means of the friendship, the boy seems likely to affect his father’s work negatively. Holling inadvertently leaks his architect father’s plans for the school to his girlfriend’s architect father, which leads first to the plans being stolen, then to the competitor leaving the competition, but then to the girlfriend’s father getting the much better task of a redesign for part of Yankee Stadium, much to Holling’s father’s annoyance. Doug’s friendship with his father’s boss might endanger his father due to his callous treatment of Doug, but then Doug’s father’s change of heart leads to a different outcome.
–Each boy has male friends with excellent, loving, caring parents who tend to take over parental duties when his own father causes problems in his life. These parents, especially fathers, seem to operate as example of the kind of loving parenting Holling and Doug are missing.
–Both boys start out hating but make close friends with teachers who profoundly influence them–Holling an English teacher whose husband is missing in action in Vietnam, Doug a gym teacher back from the war and much emotionally wounded by it. Through their relationships, both the boys and teachers become better people, and their lives
are much richer and much happier.
–the teacher’s husband then represents a Vietnam soldier in Wednesday Wars parallel to Doug’s brother in Okay for Now. Both are missed and then return home during the course of their novel.
–The value of cultural knowledge is a key issue in both books. Learning about art and literature is the key that moves each of the boys past their cynical pessimism about themselves and their future and towards a rich and happier understanding of themselves and others. In Wednesday Wars, Holling reads and thinks about various plays by Shakespeare that his teacher has assigned him. In Okay for Now, Doug studies the prints of birds by Audubon that a friendly librarian introduces him to and helps him to understand well enough to copy accurately. In each case, the specific art works referred to are shown to relate to events in the boys’ lives, Holling seeing elements of Shakespearean plots and characters as explanations of his own life and his interactions with others, Doug reading his interpretations of what the Audubon birds are doing and thinking into his own attitudes and responses to experiences. In both books, then, the art works operate significantly as ways in which the plots are organized and come to express specific meanings.
–The boys both turns out to have previously hidden talents. Both show they are able to run very fast. Both also turn out to have surprisingly excellent acting skills, and perform onstage to the acclaim of their audiences. And Doug also discovers his talent for drawing.
–Both boys learn about the works of art that engage them at the hands of an older person employed in a sort of education-related position: an English teacher and a librarian. The novels both celebrate the passion and justify the interests of professionals who work with young people by showing them to be more empathetic and understanding than the boys’ parents are (a common trope of novels for young people, which often feature wonderfully sympathetic teachers and librarians much like the actual purchasers of such books, and describe how such professional can save young people from their repressive or otherwise inadequate parents).
–Both boys save the day for others around them in a significant way that involves their participation in art, Holling by performing in a play and Doug by both retrieving sold-off Audubon prints in order to make the library’s collection complete again and, also, acting in a play.
–Both boys end up in embarrassing costumes on stage in roles that might define them as effeminate, but realize it doesn’t affect their actual masculinity.
–Both boys develop relationships with owners of food shops–a bakery and a deli–that lead to important events in their lives.
–The citizens of the apparently ordinary small towns both boys live in turn out to include famous people or those with connections to famous people who give them contact with a larger world of fame and celebrity in sports and the arts.
–Both boys love an amazingly wonderful girl, and the girls love them back despite some initial expressed concern about his inadequacies.
–Both boys have girls in their lives who almost die–Holling’s sister in a possible crash with a bus that he saves her from, Doug the girl he learns to love from an unnamed disease he helps her to recover from.
–Both boys make significant trips into New York City.
–Both boys work to create a community of good people around them and cause things to happen to their enemies that give their enemies less power.
–While both boys define themselves as lonely loser outsiders, they both turn out to be amazingly capable in many directions, amazingly talented and wise, and with an amazing capacity for making good and important friendships with both their peers and with many adults, and both end up enmeshed in and at the centre of a loving community built around and in response to their own actions and abilities. So while apparently realistic depictions of actual life in the recent past, both books are wish-fulfillment fantasies, with their events again and again transcending the boundaries of actual possibility. Both boys turn out to have something like superpowers and interact with famous people who admire them, including various Yankees.

So what, after all that, really is new and different in Okay for Now? Not much, I think, except the intensity of it. The details are different, but Okay offers inherently the same experience as Wednesday Wars in a more concentrated way. It is even more magical than Wednesday Wars, with more bizzarely unrealistic but indubitably wonderful things happening–Doug actually appearing in a broadway show and such). But this is just a difference in scale, for what seems important about both books is that they allow amazing things to happen to their main characters that are well beyond plausibility but, at least for a reader like me, very satisfying. They are both fairy tales pretending to be realistic novels in order to make readers happy.

But that doesn’t actually explain why the two books are so alike. I’m not cynical enough to suggest merely that Schmidt was cynical enough to repeat the success of a very successful book: Wednesday Wars was a Newbery Medal honour book. I’m more prone to conjecture that Schmidt might have realized he had a better version of the same story in him, and set out to produce one. It is, i think, a better version, more linguistically adept, with more exaggerated events and with, for me at least, the result of richer payoffs in terms of readerly satisfaction. It makes less claim to seeming real, I think, and so offers more satisfying wish-filfullment. Beyond that, my look at what the books have in common has drawn my attention to what they don’t share–the differing aspects of class and masculinity they deal with. As is often the case in variational texts, the presence of similarities point to significant differences, and Doug’s story is different from Holling’s primarily in how their fathers behave to them and to others, and how the father’s stories are resolved in ways that then effect the boy’s lives differently. The two together then become a sort of fugue on themes of class ideas of masculinity–a fairly complex ones, for while Doug’s father’s behaviour is much criticized in the novel, he turns out to be redeemable in ways that Holling’s father isn’t.  But at the same time, Holling’s success seems possible primarily because, while the product of a lower-class family with lower-class values, he possesses enough of a middle-class soul to dislike how his parents and brothers behave and to have the apparently innate ability to act like and make friends with richer and classier people. His is a Cinderella story, then, about an apparently lower-class person who has the inner character and values of an upper-class one and thus is rewarded by a more upper-class sort of life, a conclusion which seems to undermine the novels’ other ideological strain that seems to suggest that poorer less upwardly-striving people are warmer, more humane and morally superior to people like Holling’s father.