When Zachary Beaver Came to Town
by Kimberly Willis Holt
I really had no expectations for When Zachary Beaver Came to Town by Kimberly Willis Holt. I picked it up because a few of my students had read it this past year. Going in, I didn’t remember at all what it was about when I reached it on my list the other day. I didn’t even bother reading the back. That being said, I still felt a little disappointed.
We meet Toby hanging out with his best friend Cal during the summer in a small town in Texas. They are lining up to see the most interesting thing to happen in their town in years. A trailer has pulled up and a man is charging two dollars to see the world’s largest boy. Toby and Cal eventually end up developing an odd and somewhat strained friendship with “the world’s largest boy” Zachary Beaver, but it’s just one more thing for Toby to worry about this summer.
This small Texas town seemed filled with people. There are so many characters it become confusing. We of course have Toby and his best friend Cal, and also Toby’s father, important characters who could have used a bit more filling out. Zachary Beaver is also an important character whose appearance seems to be a catalyst for a lot of Toby’s realizations. Then we have the following minor characters: Miss Myrtie Mae is the town librarian and cares for her senile brother; Ferris owns the bowling alley/restaurant; Wylie Womack doesn’t speak anymore and runs the snow cone place; Katy is Cal’s sister and her role becomes more important after she obtains her drivers license; Toby’s crush Scarlett is in a relationship with Juan, and she has a bratty little sister who annoys Toby. Plus, we have the sheriff, the reverend, Cal’s parents, and his brother Billy. So many characters! This story also has two important non present characters—Toby’s mother and Cal’s brother. Toby’s mom is off in Nashville this summer pursuing her dream of becoming a country music star, and Cal’s brother Wayne is fighting in Vietnam. No one really gets to be more than a shell of a character and the actions of characters seem to come out of nowhere since we never really get to know them.
For example, Toby learns that his mom isn’t coming back home after she loses a music contest—in fact, she’s not coming home anytime soon. Toby seems like a smart kid, but he doesn’t get this until half way through the book. It’s obvious to the other characters in the book that she isn’t coming back, and they allow Toby to lie to them about why his mom isn’t home yet. They know the truth but let him lie—even his father. I can understand this as Toby attempts to deal with his parents splitting up. What I don’t understand is when an even bigger tragedy, a death, affects Cal, why Toby stops being Toby. He doesn’t speak to Cal, he hides from him, and refuses to go to any of the services, even after his father has lectured him and warned him. I didn’t expect this from Toby. It didn’t make sense for his character to act like this.
We also had Zachary Beaver, a key character in the book who is extremely negative and closed off, lying about the places he has been, creating up stories about his travels. He is secretive and sarcastic. It’s easy to understand why he acts this way based on how his life has been so far. What isn’t easy to understand is the baptism Toby and Cal give him at the end of the book. They have decided that this is what Zachary wants, even though he has never said it and refuses to talk about it when Cal brings it up. How exactly did they come to this conclusion? I’m not sure. When the boys plan it and “surprise” him with one, he goes—rather easily. Where did that come from? It’s explained that because it’s private and down at the lake that he’s okay with it now—but it still doesn’t sit right with me.
A lot of this novel just didn’t make sense to me. I felt like characters were never really fleshed out enough to understand their decisions or actions. It seemed like it was more of a matter of convenience, and all these contrived events lead up to a blasé ending in which Zachary leaves unceremoniously, Toby goes to visit his mom, and all the issues of the summer have been nicely cleaned up and resolved.