When Zachary Beaver Came to Town, by Kimberly Willis Holt
The summer of 1971 is shaping up to be a rotten one for thirteen-year-old Toby Wilson. His mother has left their small Texas town behind, off chasing her dreams of country music stardom in Nashville. His hero, his best friend Cal's older brother Wayne, is overseas fighting in Vietnam. And his crush, Scarlett, only has eyes for Juan, a boy who stands two heads taller than Toby and already shaves.
Enter fifteen-year-old Zachary Beaver:
Nothing ever happens in Antler, Texas. Nothing much at all. Until this afternoon, when an old blue Thunderbird pulls a trailer decorated with Christmas lights into the Dairy Maid parking lot. The red words painted on the trailer cause quite a buzz around town, and before an hour is up, half of Antler is standing in line with two dollars clutched in hand to see the fattest boy in the world. (1)
I'm generally not a huge fan of the New Person Comes to Town, Changes Peoples' Minds And Hearts, And Then Heads Off Into The Sunset storyarc. That's because more often than not, in these stories, the New Person In Town is purely there to promote change in the main character—a plot device, not a real person. When Zachary Beaver Came To Town very definitely follows that arc, and it's very definitely Toby's story, but it's one in which the Agent Of Change is clearly changed by his time in Antler, too.
It's a quiet book, and Toby's a careful, mostly-thoughtful observer:
She slices a piece of the wiggly stuff onto a china plate and hands it to me. My stomach feels queasy at the sight of turkey chunks floating inside lime Jell-O. I glance at Sheriff Levi, and the way his eye twitches studying the Jell-O, I figure he feels the same way. (93)
Because he's a real person, he's not always entirely fair, and he's not always entirely nice—his unrequited crush on Scarlett, for instance, leads to some extremely less-than-generous trains of thought about Scarlett and Juan, as well as to some straight-up slut-shaming—but he does tend to be honest with himself, at least in his own head. And because he's a real person, he does tend to think about everything he sees and hears and experiences in terms of how it applies to himself:
It's as if we're alone on a boat in the middle of an ocean—a prairie ocean—eating popcorn and sipping sodas, listening to Zachary tell us more about his real life. I say real life because somehow I can tell the difference with this talk and the stories about France and England and Seattle. And I can't help wondering if my lie is as obvious to others. (140)
It's a story that's primarily about recognizing and celebrating our differences, and it's a story about learning to empathize, to see and treat other people as human beings—which sounds like something we should all be born knowing how to do, but isn't. From the very beginning, Toby is uncomfortable with the voyeurism and inhumanity inherent in attending a freakshow:
It seems weird, standing here, staring at someone because they look different. Wylie Womack is the strangest-looking person in Antler, but I'm so used to seeing his crooked body riding around town in his beat-up golf cart that I don't think about him looking weird. (13)
Those thoughts don't stop him attending, though. And later, once the show is over and he starts interacting with Zachary person-to-person, rather than as exhibit/exhibit attendee, it still takes him a while to be comfortable—as it does for Zachary, who is understandably prickly and not particularly quick to trust. All of the relationship-building is nicely done, especially in how Holt contrasts Zachary and Toby with Zachary and Cal, and Zachary and Kate. And in how she contrasts all of that with the thread about the Judge's dementia—Toby's arc from discomfort to understanding is similar, even if the situations and power dynamics are not.
The storyline about Toby's mother—his realization that she's not coming back, his anger towards both of his parents, working to recalibrate the daily routines of the household, and how the split changes his relationship with his father—is really nicely done as well. And here's an example of Toby's honesty in a particularly unflattering moment, just after he's very deliberately made his father feel bad:
I don't even have to took to know he's disappointed, and for some reason I feel satisfied knowing that I've hurt him. (118)
His father does a lovely job of not making Toby's mother into the villain, accepting and verbalizing his own part in the end of the marriage:
"Passionate about her dreams, even back then. I guess I thought like me, her dreams belonged to her youth and that she'd be happy with the simple life. But that was my dream. It wasn't right for me to expect her to change." He turns his head toward me. "So if there is any blaming to do, aim it my way." (195)
If only all children of divorce could be so lucky. And again, the whole thread supports the overall Everyone Is A Person With Struggles And Feelings theme. As does the thread about Juan and Scarlett, in which Toby's negative opinion—based entirely in his own jealousy—of Juan changes when he starts to consider Juan as a person, rather than as an obstacle:
I try to downplay our home because I know Juan lives on the Mexican side of town, where the shabbiest houses are. (185)
It's too bad that the only notable character of color is in there pretty much purely to teach a white boy a lesson about the dangers of making assumptions about others, and to be thankful for his own economic stability. The following, though, is an even more discordant note:
Holding the piece to his chest, he skips around the room like a sissy, singing with the music, "I am sixteen going on seventeen." It would be funny except Kate didn't deserve it. I want to tell her—I'm not like him. I think he's acting like a jerk too. (33)
Is the word 'sissy' true to Toby's 1971 voice? Probably. But it sticks out like a sore thumb in a book that is largely about recognizing and celebrating differences, about accepting and loving people for who they are, about building empathy.
It's a moment in which Cal is making fun of his sister, and in which Toby disapproves of Cal making fun of his sister—which DOES fit the overarching theme of the book—but the way in which he voices that disapproval is a slap in the face to another whole group of people. It's a throwaway moment that's never addressed, and it stayed with me for the rest of the book.
We've all seen criticisms like this, and we've all seen criticisms like this brushed aside—It's just one word! It's true to the era! You're being too sensitive! Why are you so nitpicky?—but this moment, the unquestioned use of this ONE WORD, contradicts the overarching theme of the entire book. It works to undo and undermine all of the other good things that this book does. It's glaringly out-of-place, unnecessary, and entirely unfortunate.