When Zachary Beaver Came to Town: Book Summary & Characters

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

This lesson summarizes the story Kimberly Willis Holt tells in her 1999 young adult coming of age novel 'When Zachary Beaver Came to Town.' We will learn about the story, setting, character, and conflicts.

Welcome to Antler, Texas

''Nothing ever happens in Antler, TX'' Toby's uneventful summer takes a turn when a sideshow attraction rolls into town: Zachary Beaver, ''he fattest boy in the world.'' Toby's blossoming friendship with Zachary leads both boys along a journey of self-discovery, forgiveness, and redemption.

Kimberly Willis Holt's When Zachary Beaver Came to Town (1999) takes place sometime during the Vietnam war (1955-1975), when men aged 18-25 were drafted to fight in the army. It is set in the fictional town of Antler, located in the Texas Panhandle, a northern region of the state that juts out into Oklahoma.

Map of the Texas Panhandle
texas panhandle

This coming of age novel that deals with themes of friendship, compassion, ridicule, and community. It is geared toward a middle school audience of readers aged 10-14.

The Kids:

Holt populates Antler with an eclectic and eccentric cast of characters, as well as several memorable landmarks. 15-year-old Zachary Beaver weighs 643 pounds. He's the headliner in Paulie Rankin's sideshow. Though rare today, sideshows were once a trendy form of American entertainment in which traveling circuses presented odd-looking or malformed peoples for the entertainment of paying crowds. Paulie parks the trailer in the lot of the Dairy Maid, a fast food restaurant, and charges $2 for admission.

Sideshow Attractions
sideshow attractions

Our narrator, 13-year-old Toby, is one of the first townsfolk to line up at the door. In order to gain the attention of the beautiful Scarlet, his crush, Toby agrees to supervise Tara, her irritating little sister, in the trailer. Scarlet is going out with Juan, who's older and taller and Toby. Still, Toby keeps his hopes up. Cal McKnight hangs around to watch. Cal is Toby's best friend, also 13.


Otto and Opalina Wilson are Toby's parents. Mr. Wilson is the postmaster as well as an organic gardener. He raises worms, which he sells to other local farmers and fishermen. Mrs. Wilson works at the Bowl-o-Rama; they call her 'the singing waitress'. Opalina is following her dream of becoming a country western singer by competing in Nashville singing competition at the Grand Ole Opry.

Cal's got a bigger family than Toby. The McKnights are cotton farmers. Cal is the youngest of 4 children, including Billy, Kate, and Wayne. Wayne is in the army fighting in Vietnam.

Other townsfolk include the overly compassionate Sheriff Fetterman, local historian Miss Myrtle Mae, and Ferris Kelly (proprietor of the Bowl-o-rama entertainment venue and diner).

The Sideshow Attraction

When Paulie leaves town on a mission to recruit new acts for his show, Zachary is left alone in his trailer. Zachary's unmistakable presence causes the small town community to open their hearts. The Sheriff is the first person to open his heart to Zachary. As it turns out, Zachary's father is in prison, his mother passed away several years ago, and Paulie is now his appointed guardian. if Paulie doesn't come back soon, Zachary will have to go to a state home.

The Sheriff encourages Cal and Toby to befriend Zachary. When they meet on friendly terms, Cal and Toby are curious about a gold box in Zachary's trailer. After some questioning, Zachary divulges that the box contains his mother's bible and a blank baptism form. Zachary's greatest wish is to be baptized so that one day he will be able to see his mother again. Baptism is a Christian ritual in which a priest immerses a person in a bath or body of water in the belief that the water will purify the soul and allow for the entrance into Heaven.

A baptism in progress


A conflict emerges between Toby and Cal, which causes their friendship to splinter. First, Toby steals a letter from Wayne addressed to Cal out of the McKnight's mailbox. Toby replies to Wayne's letter, signing it with Cal's name. Inwardly, Toby wants Wayne to be his big brother. Since Cal hasn't responded to Wayne's letters, Toby thinks that Cal is being a bad brother.

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