When Zachary Beaver Came to Town by Kimberly Willis Holt
When I was studying literature in college, I remember being told a story about a Southern writer, Flannery O’Connor. Asked why Southern writers always have freaks in their novels, she responded:
“Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological.”
Reading “Zachery Beaver” reminded me of this quote. It’s 1971 in Antler, Texas, where nothing much happens until a trailer pulls into the parking lot of the Diary Maid. Inside is a sideshow attraction—Zachary Beaver, the “fattest boy in the world” at 643 pounds. Antler folks line up to pay $2 each to have a look at Zachary. Thirteen-year-old Toby Wilson and his best friend Cal are among the gawkers, but soon become curious, and then concerned about Zachary when they realize that his manager and guardian has apparently abandoned him in the parking lot.
Toby and Cal aren’t the only folks in Antler to notice what’s happening. For all the boredom available in this small town, there is a lot of deeply felt human kindness as well, and the ‘freaks’—actually misfits–of Antler work to help Zachary by bringing him food and protecting him from vandals. But Zachary is wary of people—after all, he lives as a sideshow attraction, being made fun of. When Toby and Cal arrange a trip to a drive-in movie, they see how Zachary must shut down in order to get through the staring and whispering of strangers.
This novel says a lot about dreams and life’s disappointments. Toby is somewhat ashamed of his father who is the town postmaster but also raising worms to sell to bait shops. Toby’s mom, who is a waitress at the Bowl-a-Rama Cafe wants to be the next Tammy Wynette (a famous country singer) and leaves her husband and son to try her luck in Nashville, home of the Grand Ole Opry. Miss Myrtie Mae, the town historian and librarian, gave up her chance for love to care for her brother, the judge, who is now senile. And the girl of Toby’s dreams, Scarlett, wants to be a model (if only she had better teeth) and is in love with someone else. Everyone—not just Zachary–is vulnerable.
The benefit of a small town is that people know each other—and when they do, they accept each other’s quirks as well as help one another in times of need. One of the most moving scenes of the novel is a mother receiving the news that her son has been killed in Vietnam. Moving, too, is the fact that the entire town shuts down and everyone attends the funeral—except Toby and the town drunk—their absence caused by more vulnerability that must be resolved.