Will Weaver: A Grand Slam in His First At-bat
(Portions of this article are based upon letters from Will Weaver.)
Will Weaver's first YA novel, Striking Out, is a home run, a grand slam in his first at-bat," Chris Crowe stated in the ALAN Review. "Weaver has combined artful language and powerful storytelling in a book that will surely appeal to male and female readers in high school and beyond." The American Library Association selected Striking Out as a "Best Book for Young Adults" in 1994, and it was one of five nominees for a 1994 Minnesota Book Award in the Older Children's Fiction category. Set in northern Minnesota during the summer of Billy Baggs' thirteenth year, the book effectively combines a baseball story with what Weaver calls "a strong back-story of family life and real-world dilemmas that young people face." Weaver published Farm Team, a sequel to Striking Out, in 1995 and he says, "My goal right now is one book for each of his [Billy Baggs] school years eight through twelve."
Prior to writing Striking Out, Weaver was a successful novelist and short story writer for the adult market. His first adult novel, Red Earth, White Earth (1986), was both a financial and critical success. Simon & Schuster bought rights to the book with a $150,00 advance when the novel was only half-finished. The book was a Literary Guild alternate selection, a paperback edition was issued in 1987, and CBS aired a two-hour made-for-TV movie based on the book in 1989. The book also earned critical acclaim from reviewers across the United States. For example, Frank Levering, in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, called Weaver "a writer of uncommon natural talent, a backwoods pitcher with a 98 m.p.h. fastball" (p. 9).
In 1989 Simon & Schuster published A Gravestone Made of Wheat, a collection of twelve short stories by Weaver which won the 1989 Minnesota Book Award for Fiction. The collection also earned a second place national award from the Friends of American Writers; and one of the stories from the collection, "Heart of the Fields," was produced by National Public Radio in 1990. "Heart of the Fields" and "Dispersal," another story in the collection, were both chosen by PEN/Library of Congress as one of the 10 best short stories of the year, while "Going Home" was anthologized in PEN Collected Fiction (1985).
Weaver was born in 1950, the youngest of three children, and grew up on a dairy farm near Park Rapids, Minnesota, a few miles outside the White Earth Indian Reservation, which serves as the locale for his first novel. While he attended Park Rapids High School, Weaver was senior class president, captain of the basketball team, and a member of the cross country and baseball teams. According to the Park Rapids High School yearbook, "Mr. Carlton Anderson built a strong Baseball team around a group of hardened veteran Seniors and ambitious underclassmen. The 1966-67 Baseball team [Weaver's junior year] won the District 29 Championship for the first time in Park Rapids' history." Striking Out includes a "With thanks" to "Carlton Anderson, coach and English teacher.""I took an interest in English in high school, which was surprising coming from a dairy farm," Weaver says. "But it seemed to me that English, poetry and literature, were right for me. It took me years to make the connection that English and farming had something in common. I realized that the best of literature deals with terribly elemental issues --cycles of seasons, life, death. These are the same things I was close to growing up on a farm." ("Will Weaver," p. 8)
After graduation from Park Rapids High School, Weaver attended St. Cloud State University but later transferred to the University of Minnesota, where he graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. degree in English in 1972. After graduation, Weaver, a conscientious objector, moved to California while waiting for a possible alternative service assignment during the Vietnam War. He worked as a manager for a California firm which made circuit boards, but he later quit to attend Stanford University, ultimately completing a master's degree in English/Creative Writing in 1978. According to Weaver, "It was not until I finished college and moved to California that I began to write seriously. From the vantage point of California I could see clearly, for the first time, the American Midwest where I had grown up."
Weaver returned to Minnesota in 1978, he says, "to be closer to my subject matter." He taught at community colleges in the Twin Cities area, later returning to the family farm near Park Rapids, when his father retired. Since the early 1980s Weaver has taught English and Creative Writing both part-time and full-time at Bemidji State University.
Commenting on his transition from writing for the adult market to writing for the YA market, Weaver attributes it to "a confluence of career and family reasons." Weaver notes that, when his two children were young, he "had the time and thinking space in which to write adult fiction," but as his children got older, they took more parenting time. "For me, then, to continue with adult, large novels such as Red Earth, White Earth would mean putting considerable distance between them and me," Weaver believes. "Unfortunately, I have seen too many writers put too much distance between their spouses and their children -- and lose touch completely. Divorce is a serious problem for writers; a quick look through literary biographies will confirm this. I like being married. I like being with my kids. YA fiction was a perfect middle ground for me. It allowed me to write smaller books, to stay in close touch with my family -- even incorporate them in the process."
Weaver often shares chapters of his YA novels with his eleven-year-old son, and he is sketching out plans for collaborating with his sixteen-year-old daughter on a basketball novel for girls. "My children are pleased with my movement into YA fiction," Weaver observes. "I think it validates for them that I am interested in their lives, their dilemmas. On the other hand, they now `accuse' me (mostly in jest) of stealing all the good lines they come up with or hear at school. For sure it has brought us closer as a family."
Before he wrote Striking Out, Weaver had "only a passing familiarity with YA fiction." He goes on to add, "I purposefully did not read and research in the genre, putting my trust in a tried and true fiction technique: create a good character, put him or her in trouble, or make the character want something very badly, and the story will write itself." Based upon his experience writing for both the adult and young adult market, Weaver concluded, "Beyond writing slightly smaller books, my largest adjustment was in matters of writing style -- that is, at the sentence level. With YA fiction it is important to establish a clean, lean prose style that provides strong imagery yet never bogs down." He does grant that occasionally he needed his editor to get him on track. "Once or twice my editor and I haggled over diction or situations that were `too adult' for her tastes; it was her useful reminder that I was indeed writing for a younger audience."
Striking Out, Weaver's first YA novel, opens with a prologue set in 1965, when eight-year-old Billy Baggs, the novel's main character, and his twelve-year-old brother Robert are left at home alone by their parents. Although the parents are gone for only an hour, Billy convinces Robert to let him drive the tractor Robert is using to pull a disk. When Billy loses control of the tractor, Robert falls off and is killed when the disk runs over him. Robert's death has a profound effect on Billy and his parents. For Billy's father, Abner, it combines with a childhood bout with polio that has left him with a limp and the grueling, never-ending farm work that has marked his whole life, making him embittered, a view of life which he tries to impart to Billy.
The novel, set on a poor farm twenty miles from Flint, a fictional town of 2002 inhabitants in northern Minnesota, takes place during a two-week period in August, 1970, but readers also learn about Billy's life in the five years following the death of his brother. After Billy's "natural ability" as a baseball player is discovered by Coach Oswald Anderson of Flint Middle School, Coach Anderson recruits Billy for the baseball team; and Billy tries to balance his chores on the farm with being involved with the team. His father's plan for Billy, however, is to train him to be a hardworking farm hand so "he won't get funny ideas about the world. Like it's easy or something. Like it won't try to knock you down." Billy also has to cope with "town kids," particularly King Kenwood, the son of the County Attorney, who feel superior to Billy because he lives on a poor farm. "But with the support of his feisty, independent mother and a sensitive and sensible baseball coach, Billy overcomes his own self-consciousness and the initial hostility of his teammates, and finds acceptance," said a Publishers Weekly reviewer. "If this plot suggests a throwback to the Chip Hinton books or other sports-oriented series from the 1940s and '50s, the subplots, involving teenage sex and the mother's decision to take an office job in town, are clearly the stuff of contemporary YA fiction" (p. 97).
Weaver is particularly good at picturing the poverty, hard work and boredom of Billy's life, as well as providing a realistic picture of rural life and small-town baseball. Baseball may serve as Weaver's "hook" for YA readers, but his focus on family dynamics and Billy's changing relationship with his father is what makes the book a "special read" for young adults. Although the publisher recommends the book for ages 10 and up, it is probably more appropriate for older readers because of a sub-plot involving a rape and some realistic use of language.
Farm Team, the sequel to Striking Out, begins the first day of the 1971 baseball season at Flint Middle School, when Billy Baggs shows up for his second year of baseball. Because Billy has a strong arm, Coach Anderson wants to use him as one of his pitchers. Although Abner was impressed with Billy's pitching in the final game of Striking Out, he still sees baseball as a waste of time because Billy is needed to work on the farm.
However, Billy's baseball career is definitely put on hold when Abner is sent to jail and Billy has to operate the farm on his own. Randy Meyers, a crooked local used-car dealer, has sold Billy's mother, Mavis, a lemon and won't do anything about it when the car breaks down. When the law doesn't help him get satisfaction from Meyers, Abner "solves" the problem himself by using his D-16 Caterpillar to level Meyer's office and to crush the twelve used cars in the lot. Although Meyers claims $20,000 in damages, Judge Langen determines that Abner should pay $6,000 in restitution, plus serve sixty days, later raised to ninety days in jail because Abner laughed during the sentencing. Abner feels contempt for Judge Langen because Langen got elected County Attorney six years earlier with a call for more laws about safety for farm machinery after Robert was killed in a tractor accident. Abner believes that Judge Langen has exploited the tragedy. Abner's attitude toward Langen also presents a problem for Billy because Billy is secretly interested in Langen's daughter, Suzy. Although he at first refuses to pay the restitution, Abner later gets his revenge by having Billy deliver the restitution to Meyers in the form of 60,000 dimes.
Recognizing how much Billy misses baseball, Mavis distributes a notice inviting everyone to the Baggs' farm for Friday night baseball. Although Billy is skeptical about who will show up, he fences in part of the pasture and creates a baseball diamond. The turnout for the first week is limited -- but two outstanding players, Jesus and Raul Martinez, part of a migrant family on their way to Crookston to hoe sugar beets, do show up. The turnout for the second week is better, so good in fact that Billy claims the "farm team" could beat Coach Anderson's town team, a challenge Coach Anderson can't let go unchallenged. Everyone in the area, including Abner, who is temporarily released from jail for the game, turns out to watch the battle between the town team and the farm team. Although many readers may guess which team wins the game, how they win should be a surprise to everyone.
Weaver is well aware that, as he says, "The matter of a sequel, and then of a series, poses for the novelist a substantial literary problem: how to give each book a pleasing `shape,' one with a feeling of closure, yet leave enough plotlines open to hold interest in continuation." However, where that series will lead isn't completely clear, which is one of its attractions. Although Weaver plans to write one book for each of Billy's school years, Weaver admits his "characters have lives of their own, and Billy is an at-risk student who, while most talented in baseball, does not do well at school. He also carries his own angers, and I could see him quitting school the day he turns sixteen -- which will leave me all sorts of problems!"
Weaver is currently writing the third book in the series, "which focuses somewhat less on sports and more on Billy's first year in high school," but, he says, "my main plot line will continue the insider-outsider rift, almost a class conflict, between Billy and the `town kids,' including a star-crossed romance with the judge's daughter -- the same judge who put Billy's father in jail for the summer of Farm Team."
YA readers are attracted to Weaver's Billy Baggs' series for a variety of reasons. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly pointed out that Weaver "knows his milieu well. A wealth of lovingly recounted details evokes the difficult daily life on a small dairy farm, while flashes of humor serve as relief" (p. 97). Todd Morning also considers "the gritty, unromantic descriptions of farm life" (p. 158) one of the strengths of Striking Out, a comment which applies equally well to Farm Team. Weaver's memories of growing up on a dairy farm outside a northern Minnesota town only slightly larger than his fictional Flint have obviously served him well in writing his YA novels. In addition, YA readers will recognize that Weaver, a former high school athlete himself, and now the father of two teenage athletes, knows his subject when he writes about baseball practices and small-town baseball games.
Although Weaver's vivid depiction of rural life and his authentic baseball scenes will appeal to YA readers, Weaver's interesting array of characters and his honest presentation of human relationships provide the strongest appeal. As a reviewer for The Kirkus Reviews observed, "The complex characters grow and change in profoundly real ways" (p. 469). For example, Billy's mother is passive early in Striking Out, but in the second half of the book she uses some of her egg money to buy a typewriter and teach herself to type. She then drives the truck into town to apply for -- and get -- a job as a receptionist at the Doctors Clinic, buys herself a "new" car (without Abner's help), and starts supporting Billy's need to play baseball. She tells her son, "We're striking out, Billy. You and me, we're finally striking out on our own."
Although she plays a smaller role in Farm Team, Mavis recognizes how much Billy misses baseball after Abner is jailed; and she finds a solution by not only suggesting the creation of the "farm team," but by also writing up and helping distribute the notice advertising baseball at the Baggs farm. She also has more faith than Billy does that people will actually show up to play. As Weaver observes "so many colorful characters -- the Gonzalez family of migrant workers, Aaron Goldberg the unathletic whiz kid -- showed up to play ball that Mavis receded somewhat into the background. But I've a feeling she would feel good about that. And perhaps that's what parenting is all about -- getting things in motion, then stepping aside."
The development of Mavis may be more dramatic than the development of other characters, but even Weaver's minor characters change and grow. For example, Heather Erickson gets pregnant after a rape by the older and sleazy Dale Schwartz. After her baby is born, she shows little interest or aptitude as the child's mother, refusing even to give the child a first name or identify the father. However, under Mavis' tutelage, Heather learns to care for the baby and gains some pride as its mother. By the end of Farm Team, Heather not only gives the baby a name, but, in a dramatic public announcement at the conclusion of the baseball game, identifies Dale Schwartz as the father of her child. Even characters with a smaller role than Heather show growth. In Farm Team, Ole Svendson, a shy bachelor farmer, shows up to observe the practices of the farm team, but refuses to get out of his car or talk to anyone except Mavis. However, by the time of the game between the farm team and the town team, he assumes an active role as the director of the parking lot.
Todd Morning also commented on Weaver's "honest depiction of the deep emotions of the major characters," adding that "this depth of feeling makes readers really care about the family" (p. 158). Recognizing Abner's inability to talk about the death of Robert and his inability to tell or show Billy how he really feels about him, Mavis bonds the family together. In addition, her caring and concern for Abner should make readers realize that he is something beyond the embittered, driven person he might appear to be on the surface. The relationship between Billy and his father is also more complex than it might at first appear. Although a superficial reading of both books might lead readers to see Abner as a cruel, abusive father, he occasionally shows sincere concern for Billy and pride in his accomplishments. For example, when the sheriff wants to know who was driving the tractor when Robert was killed, Abner claims he was because he notices the agony Billy is going through. In addition, although Abner opposes baseball as a waste of time, he shows pride in Billy's accomplishments during the games he attends at the end of each book.
Finally, as Betsy Hearne observed in her review of Striking Out, "This has the classic trimmings of an American bildungs-roman, with the subtle incorporation of the young hero's initiation into adult complexities that include sex, work, honor -- and dishonor. The canvas is broad, with some intense subplots and secondary charactersÉ" (204). The observation has even more substance if it is applied to a combination of Striking Out and Farm Team or based upon what Weaver has said he plans to do, the whole Billy Baggs series.
One of the attractions of an initiation theme for YA readers is that they are going through similar initiations in their own lives. While the similarity between their lives and those of the characters in a book may be an attraction, it also makes YA readers critical of how effectively Weaver handles the theme. YA readers demand characters with problems and relationships with enough substance to make them worth reading about, but, at the same time, they don't want insurmountable problems or permanently dysfunctional relationships that will require implausible solutions. One of Weaver's major strengths is how well he handles this distinction between problems with substance and insurmountable problems. Most YA readers are also experiencing changing relationships with their families and other adults around them, which, though they may not be as dramatic as Billy's, are no less important to them. In addition, although Weaver may sometimes appear to leave loose ends at the end of his novels, what he does resembles real life. The problems and changes in the lives of real young adults do not fit neatly into given years of their lives -- real events transcend the arbitrary boundaries of life, and, in some cases, may not have solutions, but only show gradual improvement. Billy's life, like the life of a real young adult, is irreparably connected to events that happened in his past and to the possibilities that exist in his future.
Anyone who has worked with YA readers for any length of time knows they can be demanding and discerning critics, and ultimately their verdict will be what determines the success or failure of a YA novel. According to Weaver, "The response from readers has been excellent. I've gotten batches of letters from young readers and accompanying letters from their high school teachers." He goes on to say, "My YA baseball novels seem to work particularly well for the ninth and tenth grade readers, including those `reluctant' readers; teachers tell me that students who generally won't finish a book will finish my baseball novels, and that pleases me greatly." Weaver has also been pleased with some of the reviews of both books in the series, but, he observes "the best review, of course, are the sometimes blunt, sometimes funny, sometimes touching letters from young readers. They are the ones who make it all worthwhile."
Ronald Barron teaches English at Richfield High School in Richfield, Minnesota. He received a Minnesota Book Award for his publication, A Guide to Minnesota Writers.