“The Wednesday Wars” and “Orbiting Jupiter” by Gary D. Schmidt

Calvin College Professor, Gary D. Schmidt, is a prolific author who has won many literary awards including two Newberry Honor medals.  Schmidt remained undecided about a career until his senior year of college.  He pondered many different options and finally decided to switch his major to English.  Six years passed and he earned an MA in English literature and a Ph. D. in Medieval literature from Gordon College.  He and his family have since settled into an Alto farmhouse here in Michigan, where he chops firewood and writes.  His wife Anne (who recently passed away), observed of her husband, “I think that the projects that he’s working on are never far from his mind, so that when he’s chopping wood or shoveling snow or building a fire, he’s writing … And I think that talking with the kids about their lives, what makes them laugh, helps him in his novels — inspires him.”1

 “The Wednesday Wars” is loosely based on Gary Schmidt’s own childhood, growing up on Long Island during 1967, a time of intense political upheaval.  The game of Baseball, the war in Vietnam, and the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King all play important roles in the development of the main character – Holling Hoodhood.  Holling’s troubles begin in the seventh grade.  He is convinced that his teacher, Mrs. Baker, “has it out for him”.  Holling, the lone Presbyterian in a classroom full of Jewish and Catholic students, is the only one remaining in Mrs. Baker’s classroom every Wednesday afternoon when the other students leave for religious instruction.   Even though Holling thinks his teacher is torturing him during these afternoons, many hilarious misadventures occur involving rats, cream puffs, and chalk dust.   As a solution, and to prevent any more catastrophes, Mrs. Baker comes up with a plan to give Holling the assignment of reading Shakespeare’s plays.  As Holling reads through the plays he learns to understand the hearts of others, deal with a dysfunctional family, develop lasting friendships, and handle the fear of volatile times.  He gradually progresses from an innocent boy to a wiser young man.  I would recommend this book for all students as Schmidt perfectly captures the life of a teenager in a funny, yet insightful novel.

Orbiting Jupiter” is a very different type of book than “Wednesday Wars”.  While still exploring the psyche of young men, it examines very serious issues facing young men today.  This is a book for more mature readers, dealing with issues like child abuse, alcohol abuse, and teen pregnancy.  Joseph, the 14 year-old main character, is loosely based upon a young man Schmidt met in a prison for boys.  His story is told through the eyes of Jack, a naïve 12 year-old boy in Joseph’s foster family.  The story begins tragically, with the caseworker recounting the tale that led to Joseph being placed in a juvenile facility in Maine.  He is the target of abuse by his own father, is a father himself to a little girl he has never met, and stands accused of attempted murder while in a confused mental state.

While there are some humorous stories scattered throughout the book, the overall tale is heart-wrenching.  His foster family does a great job of providing Joseph with support, kindness, and love, which helps him learn to trust again; but so many events seem to conspire against him and continually pull him back to his old way of thinking — his abusive father is still in the picture, he encounters many instances of bullying at school, and he is desperately trying to find his daughter.  The book was not all hopeless; there were some instances of grace — learning about Christ at the Christmas service, bonding with his foster family, enjoying farm life and, toward the end, finding his daughter. However, the ending to me seemed full of despair.  In conclusion, despite the ending, I found the story compelling and couldn’t put it down.  I would recommend this book to anyone who would like to challenge their preconceptions of disadvantaged boys and glimpse what life is like for those facing insurmountable experiences.

1 DeVries, Myrna. “Opening the Book that is Gary Schmidt.”  Calvin Spark, 14 May 2012, https://www.calvin.edu/publications/spark/2006/spring/schmidt.htm.

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Book Review – Prisoner B-3087

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While not written from a religious perspective, Prisoner B-3087 is an amazing and gripping novel. Based on the true story of young Yaneck Gruener, it relays his journey through 10 different concentration camps.  He learns to concentrate on two things: his fight for survival and the desire to carry on the memory of his loved ones who have perished. 

He encounters the horror of war and sees much evil in the concentration camps.  But throughout his daily terror, he never loses hope.  Every time he barely avoids death and every time he watches the cruel murders by Nazi soldiers, he continues to fight, to carry on. 

This book is written in short chapters that are filled with his remembrances of the brutal work detail he endured and his narrow escapes from death.  The author wrote this book with Yaneck’s permission to help ensure that “the horrors and realities of the Holocaust beyond those that he personally experienced would not be forgotten.” 

This book reminded me of other books, The Diary of Anne Frank, The Hiding Place, The Nightingale and Things We Have Considered; but the author presents this material in a very unique way.  You almost feel as if you are there.  I recommend that everyone read this, remembering always the privileges and freedom we have and take for granted.

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Book Review – Just Mercy

“Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson

Every once in a while a book comes along that makes you think and even changes the way you have previously looked upon a subject.  “Just Mercy” is such a book. This is the true story of a young lawyer’s fight for justice on the part of many on death row.  The author, Bryan Stevenson battles racial injustice and represents many poor, non-white, mentally ill and young offenders.  Their stories are interspersed throughout the book as he recounts his defense of Walter McMillian, a black man on death row. The memoir reads like a legal thriller, juxtaposing his many triumphs and failures.

Bryan Stevenson grew up poor in Delaware. His great-grandparents had been slaves in Virginia and this legacy of slavery influenced the way his grandparents raised their children and grandchildren.  They particularly emphasized the importance of faith and education.  Stevenson’s faith was cultivated in the African Methodist Episcopal Church where he played the piano and sang in the choir.  Stevenson attended Eastern College, a Christian institution outside Philadelphia, and then Harvard Law School. His focus to defend the poor began during college when he took an intensive class on race and poverty litigation.  He was required to spend a month with an organization doing social justice work.  They sent him to Georgia to work with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee where his first case required him to meet with a condemned man on death row. 

In the late 1980’s, Stevenson’s legal firm first took up the cause of Walter McMillian, who was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of a white woman. The state’s case had many inconsistencies.  They manufactured stories from witnesses who said they were with Walter when he committed the crime and disregarded accounts from many eyewitnesses who said they were with Walter at a church fundraiser.  The legal system was determined to find someone to convict for this murder and decided Walter would be prosecuted because of his affair with a prominent white woman (a crime during this time period).   The exposition of this case opened my eyes to the unfortunate fact that since prosecutors and police have legal immunity they can do considerable harm to innocent citizens when they are on the hunt for justice.

A large portion of this book deals with the cases of poor black children sentenced to adult prisons and serving life sentences. Stevenson tells these stories very convincingly and sympathetically.  He challenges their sentences because he says they are juveniles and his firm recognized “the incongruity of not allowing children to smoke, drink, drive … because of their lack of maturity and judgement while simultaneously treating some of the most at-risk, neglected, and impaired children exactly the same as full-grown adults in the criminal justice system.”  Circumstances that would bring a youth to be put in a situation where he felt his only option was to kill someone because he is not aware of his other options, should be recognized upon sentencing.  One example is a young boy who shoots his mother’s abuser.  Yes, punishment needs to occur, but placing a young child in an adult prison is not always appropriate justice. 

Stevenson also defends many poor white women who have been convicted of the murder of their spouse or stillborn child.  He tells the stories of pregnant women who are too poor to see a doctor or go to the hospital, and then unfortunately during labor deliver a stillborn child.  These women are then arrested and charged with capital murder which is punishable by the death penalty.

Not all of the characters in Stevenson’s book are sympathetic and his defense of them does not always seem to be justified.  As a defense lawyer his heart may sometimes get in the way of seeing their crimes objectively.  In particular, he unsuccessfully defends a prisoner who commits the heinous act of killing a child with a bomb meant for a neighbor.

While justice has been denied for a large portion those in the prison system, the author’s faith in both the power of redemption and justice, underlines his continued hope in the possibility of change.  “The true measure of our character,” Stevenson writes, “is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned … we all need mercy, we all need justice, and – perhaps – we all need some measure of unmerited grace.”

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