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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

When Zachary Beaver Came to Town by Kimberly Willis Holt

Of my recent forays into adolescent literature, this was the most well-written. The characters were masterfully drawn and the evocation of small-town life almost made this city girl feel I missed out on something.

Above all, the story is about relationships: short and long-term.

The summer that Zachary Beaver came to Toby’s hometown, his life fundamentally shifted thanks to meeting Zachary, suffering with his best friend, yearning over his first love, and losing his mother’s daily presence.

Toby and his best friend, Cal, meet Zachary Beaver when his one-man freak show comes to town. Zachary is featured as the fattest boy alive. But his guardian and ticket-taker, Paulie, takes off for awhile to find another act, and the town, especially Toby and Cal, pitch in to take care of Zachary.

Cal and Toby are the ones who see that Zachary has a yearning to be baptized, per his deceased mother’s request. Even though Cal is Catholic, Toby is Baptist, so only a full immersion baptism will do. You can imagine it’s not easy with Zachary’s size a factor.

All in the same summer, Cal’s brother dies in Vietnam, and Toby lets down his best friend by not attending the funeral. Toby’s mother left to sing in a contest at the Grand Ole Opry, and when she places second, she stays to pursue her dream.

There are only three things I would make note of, and none would rule out the book for an older tween.

Toby’s crush is described wearing short shorts, and Toby makes a mental note about wishing he was the dollar bill she slid into her pocket. It skirts a little close to the lewd boundary there, but veers safely back after that observation.

Zach’s baptism is treated with respect. It’s not treated with depth. The study guide at the end of my copy of the book revealed a more shallow trendy notion by referring to baptism as a spiritual ritual, this implying it on par with lighting a candle at prayer time. Not even the same league. Spiritual rituals being what humans do to reach closer to God, while baptism is a sacrament and centers on what God does for us.

I would not pass up this opportunity to discuss with my tween the silence in the story regarding Toby’s mother’s desertion. And desertion is my word. Here, it is often described as her pursuing her dream. It elicits a lot of anger on Toby’s part, a tacit acceptance by Toby’s father, and a polite silence from the town. The selfish nature of her act is left for your personal interpretation.


See Catechism of the Catholic Church: Baptism 1213, 1121, 405,


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