Monday, January 24, 2011

Reading Like a Writer: Academic January, The Action-Character-Oriented Novel

Academic January continues. This is week four in our series on examining Character Desire and Plot. In week one, the parameters of the discussion were introduced. In week two, we examined Sharon Darrow’s The Painters of Lexieville, our action oriented example and in week three we looked at our character oriented example, Because of Winn-Dixie. Now, we are ready to go deep with our combo action/character driven example.

Combination Action-Character-Oriented: When Zachary Beaver Came to Town
The action-character-oriented novel merges characteristics of both classifications to tell a multi-layered story. Kimberly Willis Holt in her National Book Award-winning novel, When Zachary Beaver Came to Town, accomplishes this by juggling two main plots: one action-oriented, the other character-oriented.
Like DiCamillo, Holt hints at the implicit promise in her title. When Zachary Beaver Came to Town signifies that a majority of the novel’s action will concern Zachary Beaver and his impact on the main character, Toby. As suggestive as the title is, Holt must expand on the implicit promise in the narrative itself. Holt opens the book with:
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 Diary Maid parking lot…and before half 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).
Holt uses Zachary’s arrival partially as a device, a way to bookmark her main character’s story with a timeline: one summer from Zachary’s arrival to his departure. This opening also begins to unfold the action-oriented plot in which Toby’s actions in befriending Zachary drive his character growth. This done, Holt still must clue the reader into the character-oriented plot. As the action of chapter one continues, Toby’s thoughts drift to his worries about his mom’s preparation in an out-of-town music competition: “My stomach’s been growling all the time…I haven’t had a decent meal since Mom left a few days ago. Not that she cooked much lately since she was getting ready for that stupid contest” (Holt 5).
This mention of Toby’s mother and the undercurrent of home-front-problems hints at what Toby may be facing emotionally as the story progresses. Is his anger over his mom’s “stupid contest” based on a real fear that she will not be returning to Antler? The reader reads on to find out. In fact, Holt does such a fine job of interweaving the action-oriented plot with the character-oriented plot that both aspects of the novel must be examined together.
With the requirements of the implicit promise fulfilled in both main plots, Holt slowly builds the rising action. With nothing else to do with their summer but snoop on Zachary, Toby and Cal leave bags of food on Zachary’s doorstep when his caregiver leaves to secure another side show act. The action heats up when Toby and Cal defend Zachary from a pack of bullies: “I throw again, this time aiming at James Rutherford’s arm. I miss. Then I hear it. Glass breaking. The window shatters, and the boys scatter in different directions” (Holt 61).
This section is important, and not solely because the consequences of the Toby’s rock throwing have him spend more time in Zachary’s trailer. While contemplating his action, Toby ties the developing aspects of the story structure together. “Two things weigh heavy on my mind—Zachary’s broken window and Mom’s big night tonight” (Holt 61). In this manner, the action-oriented plot concerning Zachary and the character-oriented plot involving Toby’s parents’ separation interweave at pinnacle times throughout the novel, keeping the reader abreast of one as Holt develops the other.
In building the mid-section of her novel, Holt increases the tension by having Toby learn his mom is choosing to stay in Nashville after losing the singing contest. Toby questions his father about when she will be returning. His father’s body language triggers a painful memory.
The way he walks out with his jaw set and shoulder stiff reminds me of something I had forgotten or blocked out. The fight. Their last fight. It was in this room. At this table. Dad got up and stomped away, while Mom continued to yell at the wall. Shutting my eyes tight, I try to erase that memory, but it plays over and over in my mind. And the strangest thing is I don’t even remember what the argument was about. (Holt 76)
The reader, who never quite believes that Toby’s mom will return, feels empathy for Toby. In establishing this emotion in the reader, Holt succeeds in creating her audience’s connection to her main character’s purpose. Like Darrow in The Painters of Lexieville, Holt draws on the reader’s compassion for the circumstances facing the main character. It is the audience’s investment in Toby’s struggle to accept his parents’ separation that helps escalate the novel’s tension. The reader discovers it is this inner struggle that is the heart of the character-driven conflict of the book. In examining conflict Burroway writes:
Conflict is at the core of character as it is of plot. If plot begins with trouble, then character begins with a person in trouble; and trouble most dramatically occurs because we all have traits, tendencies, and desires that are at war, not simply with the world and other people, but with the traits, tendencies, and desires of our own. (124)
Toby’s torn feelings about his mother leaving her caged life in Antler, Texas, where as Toby states, “nothing much ever happens,” will need to be resolved within the character-oriented plot. However, the mother-son relationship is not one Holt spends a great deal of the novel developing. In fact, Holt only depicts the mother in flashbacks, one telephone conversation, and a few letters. Also, as in Because of Winn-Dixie, in When Zachary Beaver Came to Town, it is not the title-bearing main character—Zachary Beaver— who bears the brunt of the novel’s emotional journey. It is again the father, whom the author develops from a flat into a round character to support the character-oriented aspect of the book.
Holt achieves this by transforming this relationship in a subtler manner than did DiCamillo. When watching his father prepare dinner Toby thinks:
Dad might as well be from Pluto as from Dallas. People in Antler see it as the same thing. The funny thing is, now it seems like Dad belongs here more than Mom I don’t think she ever counted on him settling in Antler when he passed through years ago, looking for a place to raise worms. (Holt 22)
Holt does not use an extended metaphor to develop the father as a caricature, but Toby regards him as one. He believes his Mozart-listening, post-master, worm-farmer father is boring beyond belief. Later, after Toby learns his mother is staying on in Nashville he thinks, “Maybe Mom would have stayed if Dad did something more interesting than raise worms and work in the post office” (Holt 119). The tension between Toby and his father mounts after Toby asks his dad questions about being born and raised in Dallas. In Freddy’s bait shop, the following conversation takes place:
Freddy asks, “You like to fish, Toby?”
I shrug. “It’s okay.”
Dad holds the coffee mug close to his chin. “I think my son has a dose of the big
city in him.”
I frown because I know what Dad is referring to, and I don’t see how asking a
few questions about why he left the city makes me a city kid. (Holt 124)
Holt’s read-between-the-lines portrayal of the father-son tension is deliberate. It is in keeping with the everyday atmosphere of the novel. Also it serves to maintain the book’s balance, as Holt does not want her character-oriented plot to overtake her action-oriented plot, or vice versa.
Keeping readers interested in both plots is no easy task, yet Holt does so smoothly. Once Toby reads a letter from his mom, explaining she had no intention of returning after the contest, the action-oriented plot gains speed. Toby and Cal devise two schemes involving Zachary. The first, they convince Cal’s sister to chauffeur the world’s fattest boy to the drive-in movies. The second, they arrange a baptism for Zachary in Gossimer Lake, to fulfill Zachary’s long-wanted but unspoken wish.
Previous story events intensify the baptism’s meaning. To backtrack momentarily, Cal’s brother’s, Wayne’s, death in Vietnam has a strong impact on Toby. Holt depicts Toby’s grief and the repercussions of the actions he takes in dealing with his grief in three clear-cut ways. First, Toby hides out in his room for days. Second, he hangs up on his mother in their first telephone conversation. Third, he avoids Wayne’s funeral by holing up in Zachary’s trailer, which results in a growing rift with Cal. These story events, in both the action-oriented plot, and the character-oriented plot keep the tension mounting. Yet, also within these chapters Holt begins to complete the character-oriented plot with Toby’s coming to terms with his parents’ separation. His doing so eventually brings closure to his strained relationship with his father.
“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.” Dad turned his head toward me. “So if you got any blaming to do, aim it my way.”
When he says that, I realize that’s exactly what I’ve wanted to do, but now I feel numb and I don’t know who to blame so after a long moment I say, “I don’t blame you, Dad.”
“Then don’t blame her either. She loves you, Toby. You need to let her love you.” (Holt 194)
The bonding scene continues as the father and son fish. Now that Toby no longer blames his father, he has the ability to view him as a more complex individual. This occurs when Toby learns his father failed to impress his own dad. “I don’t know what to say…I always thought Dad was kind of boring, but I never thought about him failing at anything” (Holt 196). Toby sees his father in a new light—he is more than the boring worm-farmer whose habits drove his mother away. This realization completes the father’s portrayal from a flat into a round character.
This allows the climax, the baptism scene, to reconcile the external tension surrounding Zachary. Also, before the novel’s close Holt must tie up what remains of the inner conflict, Toby’s acceptance of his mother’s decision to pursue her dreams. However, since the action-oriented plot is still building, Holt places three obstacles in Toby’s and Cal’s way in planning Zachary’s baptism.
First, they must convince Ferris to preside as minister. Second, they must persuade Zachary to go ahead with the plan. Third, they must receive a ride from Wheelchair Willie when the truck transporting Zachary breaks down. Once reaching the lake, dunking Zachary is not an easy task. It takes struggle and strain to lift him out of the water but when the baptism is over Toby thinks:
Zachary smiles, and I wonder if he’s feeling different. Because standing out here waist deep in Gossimer Lake, next to my best friend, I’m feeling different—light and good and maybe even holy. (Holt 215)
Toby’s thoughts tie Zachary’s rebirth to his own rebirth. Thus, Zachary’s baptism is a new start for Toby as much as it is an entry into the life of Christ for Zachary.
However, in the denouement there is one final moment of catharsis. The Ladybug Waltz, the event Toby has been looking forward to all summer, is a rite of passage. Toby is unembarrassed at the Mozart sonata his father has picked to accompany the releasing of the ladybugs, and when all the sacks are empty, he notes: “…one ladybug resting on a long sunflower growing at the edge of the cotton field. Instead of following the others, I guess it had its own plan. As soon as I get home, I’m going to mail that letter to Mom” (Holt 224).
Toby’s journey is rendered complete. Holt does a fine job of having Toby’s choices drive the action-oriented plot and having the character development aspects drive the character-oriented plot in this coming-of-age novel.
In fact, the coming-of-age label serves as a backbone for Holt’s story structure and its depiction of her protagonist’s primary desire. Throughout the novel Holt depicts Toby’s yearning to “grow up.” He hopes for this summer to change his life, to be remarkably different at its end— more mature— than he was at its onset. Both the action-oriented plot and the character-oriented plot build on one another throughout the novel to fulfil this desire. As story is about a single moment after which “nothing will be the same again,” Holt succeeds in having the summer When Zachary Beaver Came to Town set Toby on a new life-course.

There you have it! Nothing left to come in our Academic January pursuit of Character Desire and Plot than our eagerly awaited conclusion.

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