These days, we're familiar with tons of documentaries about the Holocaust and World War II. And chances are you will at some point be in a dark room watching one. So you can probably relate to the students in Ben Ross' history class and their variety of reactions: like horror, disbelief, and confusion. It's these reactions that set everything in motion.
After watching the documentary, Ben's students have questions that he just can't answer, and this is a big conflict for Ben. He's the teacher, after all – he's supposed to have all the answers. Ben is particularly at a loss when it comes to one central question: why didn't the German people stop Hitler and the Nazis from killing millions of people?
This question isn't necessarily a fair one. Why?
(1) There are intense political and historical debates surrounding the question of how much the average German person knew about what was going on – and, of course, what they could have done to stop it if they did know.
(2) Most historians agree that the Nazis deceived and manipulated the German public about what was going on (source).
(3) Atrocities were being committed by the Nazis all over Europe – not just in Germany.
(4) Some German people did try to put an end to things, sometimes sacrificing their lives in the process (source).
And this is just the tip of the iceberg. World War II and the Holocaust are extremely complicated historical events. That makes it beyond tough to answer questions like the ones Ben's students have. So yeah, we'd call this a conflict.
Because Ben is having trouble answering his students' questions, he decides to do an experiment: he creates an environment for his students that mimics the environment in Germany under the Nazis (as he understands it). He calls his experiment The Wave, and it ends up making things incredibly complicated for everybody at Gordon High. (And yes, we know, that's putting it lightly.)
Okay, the love story in The Wave isn't part of the original story. It was added to the made-for-TV movie to give it all that juicy stuff we want. In any case, when David and Laurie fight over The Wave (he loves it – she hates it) he actually grabs her wrist and knocks her to the ground. This is the novel's climax because it's the most intense physical and emotional scene in the book. It really changes thing for the main characters, showing them that The Wave has become an urgent problem. Super climactic, yes, but also super not cool.
Spoiler alert: since he's actually a nice guy who's still in love with his girlfriend, his act of violence shows him the error of his waves, er, ways (anger problems aside). He renounces The Wave for good and fights tirelessly with Laurie to rid the school of its presence.
The whole book lasts nine days: it starts on a Monday, the day they see the documentary, and ends on the following Tuesday. By day eight of The Wave, it's clear to everybody but the people in The Wave that this whole thing has got to end before something really bad happens. But Ben strongly – really strongly – believes that the students in The Wave have to end it themselves. So, how will this happen? What's the plan?! We – along with Laurie and David – are left in total suspense.
So how does this all play out? Well, first, Ben convinces his students that The Wave is actually a nationwide thing, involving students and teachers all across the country. Then, he lures them to the school auditorium so they can see the face of the guy who is the actual Wave leader. But, surprise! There is no leader. If they did have one, it would be – gulp – Hitler. Shmoop thinks this sounds a little wacky. What about you? Wacky or not, it definitely disbands The Wave: luckily, nobody wants to be associated in any way with Hitler and the Nazis.
Ben's plan to end The Wave works, but he seems to have forgotten all about poor Robert, the class loser turned Wave leader. Robert has found popularity and power in The Wave and now that's all gone. But don't get too sad for him: he also acted really badly. He was willing to start roughing people up and maybe even bumping people off to save The Wave.
No doubt, now that The Wave is no more, he is totally confused and desperate – hence, the tears. Luckily, Ben sees him crying and takes him out for a talk. What do they talk about? We don't know – because that's how it ends.