Chris Crutcher is a writer of young adult fiction who tackles the themes of physical disability and loss of identity. Most of his heroes are young adults who excel in sports but through an accident lose their physical prowess. Their role in life changes suddenly changes and they cannot cope with the loss of identity. Willie has excelled in baseball for most of his life; when his accident breaks his body, he cannot play anymore. Willie finds he cannot cope with this new life and leaves home. He has to rediscover his strength and find a new direction in life. Many of Crutcher’s novels have been criticized for being too direct in their depiction of physical disabilities and the problems caused by it. Some of his books have been banned from school libraries too. Nevertheless, he has been honored with awards.
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The people of Coho, Montana are looking to Willie Weaver to bring home their first championship trophy. Willie is blessed with a golden arm and when he singlehandedly wins the game for his town, the adulation they have for Willie is complete. It is the most important event in his life so far. This is why the accident that takes away his physical prowess is nearly impossible to cope with.
Identity is one of the dominant themes of the novel. The protagonist can think of himself only as an athlete. When he loses his physical prowess, he loses not only a career but also his identity. For his father William Sr., who has been living his life through young Willie’s, the accident is almost personal. No longer can he share a life of competition and excitement. In order to seek out a new identity, Willie has to travel to a new place where no one knows him as a sportsman.
Until he meets with the accident, Willie has had success easily. He is a gifted athlete who does every right almost by default. But the accident changes everything. He cannot control his own body and his identity as a sportsman crumbles. His parents are not able to help as they have their fault lines to deal with. At many stages, Willie is left to cope alone. He is depressed and suicidal. When the desire to get away becomes strong, he leaves home with a little money. He is later set upon by a gang who find him easy prey. They beat him up and rob him. When he is offered help by a stranger, there is hardly any time to ponder on the consequences of accepting that help. At the OMLC High School, Willie meets more challenges but manages to overcome them by becoming more self-reliant.
Willie Weaver is the athlete protagonist of the novel. When he wins the championship game for his town, he was fulfilling the hopes of his father and the people of the town. He is expected to go far ahead in the world of sports when an unfortunate accident leaves him physically broken. Robbed of his identity as an athlete, Willie finds that he has to put distance between him and his earlier life. Willie travels, leaving Montana behind. Along with his home town, he leaves behind his family, his girl friend, his buddies and his school. When he reaches, Oakland, California, he is truly alone. From now on, he is his only resource person. The climb back into familiar areas and strengths is a painful one, sometimes in a literal sense too.
Jenny Blackburn who is Willie’s girlfriend is an athlete too; she understands that part of him better than anyone else. But when he is involved in the accident that leaves him broken, she finds that is not enough. She stays by his side for a long while nursing and helping him. But Willie becomes resentful and jealous when he finds he cannot mend as fast as he wants. On her part, Jenny begins dating another friend though she has sworn to remain loyal. This breaks up the relationship. When Willie comes back to Montana, they try to find common ground but it is not possible.
Lacey is the black bus driver who rescues Willie and shelters him when the he is set upon by a gang which beats him up after robbing him. Lacey is doing this as part atonement. Years ago he had beaten his son senseless inflicting permanent damage to his brain. Lacey has no control over his temper and he drinks more than he should. But he and Willie work out a relationship though they have break-outs too. When Willie graduates from high school, he acknowledges his gratitude to Lacey. This gesture touches him, for it is more than anyone has done.
One perfect summer Willie Weaver’s dreams come real when after a great game, he wins for his town of Coho, Montana the first championship ever. But soon the nightmare begins. During a week-end getaway, he meets with an accident while water-skiing and is badly injured. His world upside down, Willie tries to make some sense of it all. The only identity he has known was of that of an athlete and now that is gone. He has never been close emotionally with his father; now it is worse. His parents squabble as tensions arise in their marriage. Willie’s girlfriend starts dating another boy though she had tried to help Willie a lot soon after the accident. Willie decides that he has to get away from his home town.
It is to Oakland, California that he goes. But when he gets off the bus, a gang attacks him robbing him of all the money he had. He is helped by a black bus driver who offers to take him home. Willie joins the OMLC High School. He also takes physical rehabilitation classes to get the strength back in his limbs. He finds a friend in Andre, the principal and Lisa, the physical education teacher. The school is under threat from the same gang that had attacked him when he first arrived there. One night, they attack the school, setting it on fire. Willie has to fight the gang alone as he is separated from his friends. While saving his own life, he saves the gang leader who too had been trapped inside.
Two years have now gone past and Willie decides to go back home. But when he gets home there are changes that he had not anticipated. His parents have divorced and his mother has remarried. Willie and Jenny cannot get back together. Willie decides to go back to Oakland.