The Crazy Horse Electric Game
The Crazy Horse Electric GameIntroduction
For Further Study
The Crazy Horse Electric Game, published in 1987, is a coming-of-age story that combines elements of sports, family dysfunction, physical disability, and social issues but also manages to infuse humor into tragic circumstances. Author Chris Crutcher specializes in young adult fiction and often draws inspiration from his work as a child and family therapist as well as his desire to give teens a dose of truth about the real world.
Crutcher received the prestigious Margaret A. Edwards Award for his young-adult writings, which, as Edwards Award committee chair Joan Atkinson told Betty Carter in School Library Journal Online, "bring to life the contemporary teen world including its darker side." The protagonist of The Crazy Horse Electric Game, Willie, lives a sheltered and somewhat charmed existence until circumstances force him to embark on a journey in order to discover how to live life under a completely different set of rules. When Willie leaves the small town of Coho, Montana, he's confronted with difficult situations that test his resilience yet also show him that he does have power and influence over his world.
The novel is told from the point of view of Willie, which reflects the influence that Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird had on Crutcher. He admits that the strength of the main character's voice is unforgettable, which serves to make the novel synonymous with the character. Ultimately, Crutcher began writing The Crazy Horse Electric Game because he wanted to tell some silly jokes. However, the story of Willie's journey does much more than provide comic relief. As Crutcher explains to Betty Carter in School Library Journal Online, it "give[s] hope to young adults struggling with the eternal questions of who they are and where they belong."
Chris Crutcher, born in the small and isolated logging town of Cascade, Idaho, on July 17, 1946, graduated from the Eastern Washington State University in 1968 and, despite what he calls his unremarkable performance as a student, later excelled as a teacher for at-risk teens at the Kennewick Dropout School in Washington State. After spending the next ten years working with troubled youth, specifically as a mental-health therapist, Crutcher became reacquainted with old college friend and writer Terry Davis. After working with Davis on his novel Vision Quest, Crutcher embarked on a writing career of his own, publishing his first book, Running Loose, in 1983. The novel was named an ALA Best Book and led to a string of successful young adult novels, which earned Crutcher a reputation for telling stories that honestly portray the life struggles of adolescents and tackle tough issues.
Despite his lack of formal training in the art of writing, Crutcher would go on to pen six novels for young adults, as well as one adult novel, over the course of his career. While his writing eventually took precedence over his work as a therapist, Crutcher still works with the Child Protection Team in Spokane, which is an organization of mental-health professionals who handle the most difficult cases. Continuing his work with disadvantaged youth gives Crutcher material for his novels, and he draws upon real-life experiences for inspiration. In fact, his mother was an alcoholic for the duration of Crutcher's adolescence, which he says gave him a real connection with troubled kids.
An avid sports enthusiast, Crutcher runs marathons, swims, and participates in triathlons, subjects that also find their way into his work. Because he undertakes difficult subject matter, Crutcher has, in the past, found himself the victim of censorship in some conservative school districts. Crutcher interprets the censorship as a desperate and shortsighted attempt to protect children from the truth, telling Betty Carter in School Library Journal Online, "When my books are banned, they're banned because people are afraid for kids to know about something I wrote about. Now, how dumb is that?"
Crutcher, who never married, still lives in Spokane, and has written screenplays for two of his novels, Running Loose and The Crazy Horse Electric Game, while Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes has been optioned by Columbia Pictures. His short story "A Brief Moment in the Life of Angus Bethune" from Athletic Shorts was made into a major motion picture by Disney Pictures. In 2000, Crutcher received the Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement in young-adult literature.
The Championship Game
The Crazy Horse Electric Game by Chris Crutcher begins with Willie Weaver, the star pitcher for Coho, Montana's local baseball team, preparing to play the most important game of his life. Willie is blessed with a golden arm that earns him legend-like status among his friends and family, and he knows that winning the game for his team, Samson Floral, rests entirely on his shoulders. However, Willie's got the confidence to know that when he's on, nobody can touch his fastball. The whole town of Coho is counting on Willie to bring in their very first championship trophy, especially Willie's father, Big Will, who seems to be living vicariously through his son's sports triumphs and failures. Big Will's claim to fame was playing football in the '60s for the University of Washington and winning the Rose Bowl. Despite the fact that Willie knows his dad is proud of him, father and son have never been able to achieve any significant emotional connection.
On the day of the big game, Willie is on fire; no batter has reached second base, and Samson Floral is ahead 1-0 in the seventh inning. By the bottom on the ninth, however, Willie makes his first mistake of the game, putting the tying run on first just before the opposing team's big hitter steps up to the plate. When the next pitch is thrown, Willie loses his balance as the ball is hit hard toward third base. Miraculously, Willie catches the line drive on pure instinct and "etches the Crazy Horse Electric game in the mind of every citizen and ball player and coach—maybe even dog and cat—in Coho, Montana."
With the championship under his belt, Willie is riding high for the whole summer. On a weekend getaway with his parents, his girlfriend, Jenny, and best friend, Johnny, Willie has a tragic accident while water skiing that leaves him physically disabled. The body he once had complete power over is now broken and out of his control. Willie feels ashamed, embarrassed, and frustrated over his condition. He wants to avoid everyone, but Jenny and his friends insist on bringing him back into the fold. Despite everyone's efforts to make Willie feel comfortable, their behavior has the opposite effect. Willie can't stand the pity and begins to retreat into his own world, which is wrought with depression and suicidal thoughts.
Willie's parents send him to a therapist, who tries to help Willie deal with his feelings about the accident. After a few sessions, it seems as if Willie is making some progress until he has a big blowout with Big Will, who thinks Willie isn't trying hard enough to recover. Willie feels like he's failed his father while Big Will's insensitive attitude angers Willie's mom and it creates a wide rift in the marriage. In addition to Willie's family life falling apart, he catches Jenny with a classmate and knows that she's betrayed him. That night, Willie overhears a vicious fight between his parents, fueled partly by lingering resentment over the death of Willie's baby sister a few years ago, and he believes the only answer is to run away and release his loved ones from the burden he has put on them.
Willie packs his bags, takes all the money he can find, and boards a Greyhound bus headed toward San Francisco. He makes it all the way to Oakland, but gets stranded late at night because the bus breaks down. Willie finds himself surrounded by a local gang who spot his cane and see him as an easy target. Despite his best efforts to escape, the gang attacks Willie, takes all his money, and leaves him battered and bleeding in the street. Willie is rescued by a local bus driver named Lacey, who takes him home and lets him stay the night.
Despite Lacey's original insistence that Willie can only stay one night, the two work out an agreement where Willie agrees to help Lacey around the house in exchange for room and board. In addition, Willie discovers that Lacey is in a dubious line of work. Lacey calls it "human relations," which Willie quickly translates. Even though Lacey is a pimp, Willie knows he's in no position to be making moral judgments. That day, Lacey calls in a favor in order to get Willie enrolled in a local school for disadvantaged and troubled teens called OMLC (One More Last Chance) High School.
At OMLC, Willie bonds with Lisa, the physical education teacher who recruits Willie as her pet project in working toward her physical therapy degree. Willie is reluctant at first to trust her, but she makes quick progress with Willie, thus enabling him to feel less self-conscious about his broken body. He also becomes close to Andre, the school's principal, who looks after Willie like an older brother. Life with Lacey, however, doesn't go as smoothly. Late one night, Willie wakes to a fierce argument between Lacey and one of his girls, who just happens to be a classmate of Willie's. When he defends the girl and leaves Lacey unconscious, Willie is terrified that Lacey will kill him. He is set to move into the school's basement, but for some mysterious reason, Lacey tells Willie to stay.
Soon, Willie learns that he is granted permission to stay because Lacey is trying to redeem himself for a past wrong. Apparently, Lacey beat his own son so badly that he was permanently brain damaged and now lives in a hospital. Lacey is forbidden to see his own son and believes he can ease his troubled conscience by aiding Willie.
Burning Down the OMLC
As Willie continues to progress with Lisa's help and some tai chi classes, he finds his center and makes strides on the basketball court, which also gives Willie an opportunity to make friends with two other classmates, Hawk and Kato. At the same time, Andre is working hard to make decorative improvements on the school. However, the improvements are short-lived when the gang who beat up Willie months ago starts to deface the school with graffiti. Kato decides it's time to teach the gang a lesson, and with the keys to the school, makes a plan for himself, Hawk, and Willie to take down the gang when they make their next strike. The night of the rumble, Willie finds himself facing the gang alone. The gang sets the school on fire, and Willie barely escapes but manages not only to save his own life but that of the gang leader as well.
Despite the tragedy, Andre vows to work just as hard to return the school to its old glory. Willie, inspired by Andre's vision, works so hard with Lisa that it is now almost impossible to tell that he has any physical disability. On the day of graduation, Willie makes a moving speech and thanks everyone, including Lacey, who has helped him recover. Believing his time at OMLC has run its course, Willie boards a bus and heads back to Coho, where he hopes to make amends with his friends and family. When he arrives, Willie finds that in the two years since he's been gone, so much has changed. His parents are divorced, his mother is remarried, and his father is unemployed and struggling with alcoholism. In addition, Willie's surprise reunion with Jenny is wrought with tension as she is just not ready to deal with the aftermath of Willie's sudden disappearance and unexpected return. After two lengthy and separate conversations with his parents, Willie realizes that Coho is not his home anymore. He knows it will take time to rebuild a relationship with his parents, and that someday he'll come back again, but in Coho, he still feels disabled, like he did before he left. As the novel ends, Willie takes his father's motorcycle, says goodbye, and heads back to Oakland.
Angel is a classmate at the OMLC high school and a prostitute who works for Lacey Casteel. Despite Willie's attempts to help her out of her situation and the fact that Willie has developed a crush on her, Angel inexplicably prefers to stay with Lacey and does not return Willie's romantic feelings.
Jenny is Willie Weaver's girlfriend and best friend. Also an athlete, Jenny bonds with Willie over their love of sports and competition. When Willie has his accident, it is Jenny who saves his life and remains by his side to nurse him back to health and give him all the love and support he needs. However, Jenny finds that her generosity and patience toward Willie result in jealousy and resentment on his part. While she swears to stand by Willie, the relationship comes to a tragic end when she begins dating another classmate. When Willie discovers her betrayal, Jenny tries to explain her actions, but ultimately her behavior ends the relationship permanently. Just before Willie leaves, she argues with Willie over his behavior since the accident: "You treat your friends like spit. I'd have stayed with you, Willie, if you'd have made any attempt to be decent. But no! Not Willie Weaver! If he can't be a hero, then to hell with everyone else." When Willie returns two years later, Jenny initially refuses to speak to him, but later has a conversation in which she reveals that she's too hurt and confused to tell Willie how she feels. They part ways amicably before Willie returns to Oakland.
Lacey is a black bus driver and part-time pimp who rescues Willie one night after a gang attack. Lacey allows Willie to stay with him and enrolls Willie in a local school; however, Lacey's generosity is somewhat duplicitous. By caring for Willie, Lacey feels he can somehow redeem himself for beating his own son many years ago: "I get this idea to get me out of Hell. Raise me a white cripple kid. Can't fix all the bad shit, but maybe I make up some." Lacey is prone to violence and often drinks to extreme, which culminates in a physical confrontation between him and Willie. While Lacey prefers to keep his life private, he reveals parts of himself and his past to Willie, and the two make amends and develop a strong bond. Lacey struggles with his ex-wife and the son he is forbidden to see but becomes a better man through his relationship with Willie. Lacey attends Willie's graduation and is touched by Willie's public expression of gratitude toward him.
Warren is a black student at OMLC high school and one of the toughest kids on campus. He's tall, smart, strong, and intimidating, with a short temper, a tendency to fight, and a penchant for pot smoking. However, he's also easygoing with a good sense of humor. His skills on the basketball court impress Willie, and despite their differences, the boys become allies in the fight against the street gang that tries to ruin the school.
Kato is a stocky black kid and Warren Hawk's sidekick. His eccentric sense of humor reminds Willie of an old friend back in Montana and acts as a bridge between Willie's past and present.
Lisa is the physical education teacher at the OMLC high school. An excellent basketball player who is studying for her degree in physical therapy, Lisa takes Willie under her wing and teaches him how to build up his strength, both physically and mentally, with different exercises and the use of visualization. Her encouragement and wisdom help Willie come to terms with the accident and force him to take responsibility for his life. She tells him point-blank, "You crippled yourself because you stretched the rules till they broke. Simple as that."
Andre is the principal at the OMLC high school. He accepts Willie into the school in exchange for maintenance work. Acting as a mentor for Willie, Andre guides him through some of his more difficult challenges and encourages him to reach out to the other students. It is Andre's commitment to the school and the students, as well as his determination to accept responsibility in the most desperate times, that helps Willie realize he has to keep fighting to improve his life.
Johnny is a close friend and teammate of Willie's who reveres Willie and his athletic talent. Johnny's admiration grows after Willie's unforgettable performance in the championship game. However, after the accident, to which Johnny was a witness, the friendship becomes strained. Johnny is unable to relate to him outside of the sports arena. He tries to support his friend and invite him to parties, but discovers that it's impossible to communicate with Willie: "I'm your friend, man. I wanna stay your friend, but I don't know what to do. Really. Just tell me what to do." Johnny watches, helpless, as Willie retreats further and further into his shell. When Willie returns to Montana, Johnny is the first person he seeks out. Even though Willie has been gone for two years, Johnny holds no hard feelings toward his old friend. Johnny welcomes Willie back but he is also the one to reveal the difficult news about Willie's parents' divorce.
Sammy is Lisa's boyfriend and the tai chi instructor who helps Willie on his road to recovery, both physically and spiritually. He believes in "lust and passion and good old common sense. And in staying alive."
Telephone Man is the first student Willie meets at OMLC high school. He is an emotionally-challenged and sensitive teenager who wears a full set of telephone repair tools on a belt around his waist. Telephone Man acts as the catalyst for the final showdown with the gang at the school. Because the gang violently attacks Telephone Man, Willie and two other students decide to fight back. This act of loyalty means the world to Telephone Man because it makes him realize that he is liked by his classmates.
Sandy Weaver is Willie's mother. She blames herself for the death of her baby girl to SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) a few years ago, and has never fully recovered from the loss. While she's proud of her son's accomplishments, she worries that his bravado will result in him taking his life for granted. She wishes that Willie would understand that he has been given gifts for which he should be thankful. After the accident, Sandy watches her marriage fall apart because her husband is overcome with guilt. Her relationship with William Sr. is marked by tragedy, but she criticizes her husband for his reaction to their son, saying "I don't treat our son like a leper; or worse yet, like he's invisible. He's not some possession … he's not a car you can take back to the dealer because it doesn't run right." When her son disappears, Sandy leaves her husband, and by the time Willie returns, she is remarried to another man. While she wishes Willie would come and live with her, Sandy understands why her son must leave again.
William Weaver Sr. is Willie's father and former star football player. His claim to fame is winning the Rose Bowl back in 1968. As he watches his son excel in baseball, William Sr. seems to be living vicariously through Willie's successes and failures. While proud of his son's accomplishments, William Sr. remains emotionally distant from his son and is more often imparting sports wisdom than offering fatherly support and advice. When Willie is injured in the accident, William Sr. blames himself for almost drowning his son and is unable to cope with his guilty conscience. He can't deal with Willie because he's a constant reminder of William Sr.'s mistakes. He reacts to Willie's apathy by saying, "You want to be a cripple all your life, just keep it up. When it gets a little tough, slack off." William Sr. alienates himself from his family and turns to alcohol when his marriage falls apart after Willie runs away. When Willie returns, William Sr. finds it difficult to make amends with his son, but is impressed with the way Willie has recovered.
Willie is the novel's protagonist. He is a gifted and confident baseball player and all-around athlete who pitches the local team to its first championship and, with an amazing catch, etches that particular game into the town's history. However, Willie's life changes dramatically when an accident leaves him physically disabled. Unable to deal with the physical and emotional consequences of the accident, Willie leaves rural Montana, his friends, his girlfriend, and his family behind and arrives in Oakland, California, an urban street-wise city significantly different from his hometown.
During the two years that he spends in Oakland, Willie forges friendships with various characters and graduates from an alternative high school. By working with a physical therapist and taking tai chi classes, Willie is able to regain control over his body, come to terms with the accident and how it changed his life. In his graduation speech, Willie thanks Sammy, his tai chi instructor, saying, "He talked to me, mostly without words, and I think he told me a whole lot of what I'm going to need to be an adult. He showed me how my mind and body are just different parts of the same thing and that there are no limits for either; that most of the really important answers are already inside me…. He taught me how to go to my gut to survive." Willie returns home to make amends with his past; however, after discovering that his family fell apart in his absence and that his friends have moved on without him, Willie returns to Oakland to continue his new life.
Cyril is Willie's therapist, whose unconventional style succeeds in reaching Willie in a way that no one else can. With his frank and direct manner, Cyril tells Willie, "That golden boy isn't you anymore, and as long as you keep measuring yourself up against him, you're gonna be mad as hell at everybody." Cyril interprets Willie's dreams and encourages him to communicate more with his family and friends. He even suggests that Willie bring his parents and his girlfriend into his office for some group sessions in order to help Willie sort through his problems. Despite the small progress Cyril makes with Willie, he can't stop him from trying to escape his problems. Once Willie leaves Montana, Cyril never sees him again.
One of the prevalent themes in the book involves how young people determine their identity as they come of age. For Willie Weaver, he identifies himself as an athlete first and foremost. Because of his talent on the baseball field and the relative ease with which he is able to master certain sports, Willie couldn't image living his life any other way. Sports are an essential element to his life; it's how he relates to his father, William Sr., who was a star football player in his day, his friends, who are also his teammates, and his girlfriend, who shares Willie's love of competition. Ironically, it is a sporting activity that takes away his physical abilities. When Willie loses power over his body and his ability to play sports in a water-skiing accident, his whole world falls apart as he can no longer relate to the people in his life. If he's not the star pitcher for the baseball team, then who is he? Willie watches as each relationship in his life suffers because of his unwillingness to accept the consequences of the accident or to make any attempt to recover. It is only when Willie travels to a place where no one knows him or who he was that he is able to find the freedom to discover who he really is.
Throughout the novel, Willie's resilience is tested several times, beginning with the accident that leaves him physically disabled. While he survives the accident, he struggles greatly with the consequences of his disability and must deal with the depression and suicidal thoughts that follow. Ultimately, Willie believes he must escape his surroundings in order to continue his life and then faces a number of challenges as a result of leaving those familiar surroundings. Once he arrives in Oakland, he suffers a violent gang attack that leaves him beaten, bloody, and broke. Yet once again, he finds the strength to survive by striking a deal with a man who offers him a place to stay free of charge. Finally, Willie's attendance at the OMLC (One More Last Chance) High School represents his final chance at survival and the ultimate test of self-reliance, which is heightened by the fact that he is surrounded by other disadvantaged individuals who face similar, difficult challenges in their struggle to survive with the limited resources they've been given.
Connected with the concept of survival is the idea of fate and the way one single moment can define a lifetime. Willie has two similar experiences that have dramatically different results. The first is his amazing play during the Crazy Horse Electric game. By making a miraculous catch to win the game, Willie becomes a minor legend in a matter of seconds. A few weeks later, during a weekend trip with his family, Willie is injured in a water-skiing accident that leaves him severely disabled. These two events are related to fate in the sense that Willie had no control over either of them. One resulted in him being a hero while the other took away the only life he ever knew. Inevitably, Willie questions why he was injured and tries to figure out whom or what to blame. He needs a reason or a purpose for his suffering. Ultimately, however, even as Willie comes to terms with the how and why of his accident, he knows the answer doesn't necessarily make him feel better about his life. Willie isn't able to move on until he accepts his situation and makes a concerted effort to recover.
Topics for Further Study
- Chris Crutcher has often been criticized, and sometimes censored, for tackling serious and controversial subject matter. Is it wrong for teachers and parents to ban his books? Argue for or against censorship in schools.
- Research the history of gang violence in the United States. Discuss the effects of gang violence on surrounding communities, and how the situation has changed in the last decade.
- Read Crutcher's Ironman and compare it with The Crazy Horse Electric Game. Explore the similarities and differences between the two novels and then discuss why you think Ironman was met with such controversy and subsequently banned.
- Define and explore some of the major elements of sports, such as competition, team work, stamina, integrity, loyalty, and cooperation, and then explain how each one directly relates to dealing with life's difficult challenges and forming one's identity.
At the start of the novel, Willie has a traditional family that is stained by a struggle with a past tragedy. Despite the loss of a child, Willie's parents are still together and providing him with a somewhat stable home. This traditional family structure, however, is threatened after Willie's accident. Willie leaves home as a way to release his parents of the burden he has created, an act that eventually causes the end of his parents' marriage. Once Willie arrives in Oakland, he succeeds in creating another kind of family, one that is unconventional but nonetheless provides him with the support system he desperately needs. Several different characters combine to act as Willie's caretakers and substitute parents, from the man who first takes him in, Lacey Casteel, and the principal at OMLC, Andre, to his physical therapy teacher, Lisa, and his tai chi instructor, Sammy. In addition, the other students at the OMLC act as extended family members who provide Willie with loyalty and companionship. When Willie returns to Montana, he realizes that his family has fallen apart, forcing him to reconsider the concept of family. At the end of the novel, he decides to return to the home and family that he's created back in Oakland.
The novel's two settings serve to greatly differentiate between Willie's life before the accident and after the accident and the spiritual journey he makes over the course of the story. In the small town of Coho, Montana, Willie leads a sheltered life in which everything comes easily to him. He is well known by the townsfolk, and the championship game turns him into a hero. However, his hero status comes too easily; he is never confronted with obstacles or major challenges. He lives a charmed life, one that is never contested, which is reflected in his safe, small-town surroundings. When Willie arrives in Oakland, he's forced to figure everything out on his own. In the tough, urban setting of Oakland, Willie is no longer the boy with the golden arm; he's just another kid down on his luck in a place filled with disadvantaged people. In this new setting, Willie learns the importance of being challenged. In his speech at graduation, he acknowledges the gift he's been given, saying, "My life is more valuable because I got knocked out of my favored spot." It's only by expanding his life experience in another setting that Willie can grow as a person.
Symbolism is a literary device used to instill meaning into an object. One of the symbols in this novel is a walking cane given to Willie by his teammates after the accident. It is a custom-made cane with a golden baseball for a head, reading Willie Weaver-1, Crazy Horse Electric-0, an inscription that represents Willie's shining moment. Willie uses the cane for a few weeks after the accident; he needs it to help him walk. However, even when Willie no longer physically depends on the cane, he keeps it with him, and it acts as a reminder of Willie's former glory. When Willie arrives in Oakland, the cane becomes a symbol of weakness and vulnerability. In his most desperate time of need, the cane becomes his enemy and the reason why Willie is chosen as a target. Later in the novel, as Willie begins to have some control over his life, the cane mirrors his progress and becomes a weapon that Willie uses to defend a girl whom Lacey is beating.
As Willie starts his tai chi classes, Sammy, his instructor, teaches him to use his cane to his advantage and incorporates it into Willie's balance. When Willie grows stronger, the cane comes to represent something other than the Crazy Horse Electric game. Just like Willie must learn to make allowances for his body and use what he has to the fullest extent, the cane becomes less of a symbol of who Willie used to be and more of an indication of how far he has come. In the final confrontation with the gang at the OMLC, Willie brings his cane for protection against the boys and uses it to defend himself and escape the burning building. Willie makes it out alive, but the cane gets left behind in the rubble. When he travels back to Coho, Montana, Willie arrives in town without the cane, which symbolizes that he has come full circle in his recovery.
Young Adult Literature
The Crazy Horse Electric Game is a novel that falls within the young-adult literature genre. A book is characterized as young-adult because it addresses the issues and problems of contemporary life as experienced by this particular age group. The novels within this genre often discuss many of the same questions and difficulties that teenagers must confront, such as drugs, divorce, parents, alienation, suicide, disabilities, abuse, gang violence, school, sports, and relationships. At the same time, many adolescents must deal with the transition between childhood and adulthood and the idea of discovering their identity, which is one of the main issues explored in this novel. One of the crucial elements in young-adult literature is its ability to reach its audience in a way that allows them to better understand and authenticate their own life experiences in a safe environment. It's a forum for teenagers to work through their problems without being threatened with exposure. It is also an important way to introduce teenagers to literature and create a lifelong interest in reading.
The War on Drugs Campaign in the 1980s
When The Crazy Horse Electric Game was published, President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan had launched the war on drugs in America. Nancy Reagan had made it one of her personal crusades and created the slogan that urged young people to "Just Say No." As a result, "Just Say No" clubs were springing up in schools across the country. This effort was started in 1984 and continued up through President George Bush's inauguration in 1988.
In September of 1986, Ronald and Nancy Reagan gave an address from the family quarters of the White House on the subject of drug abuse. In the speech, as reported by Jacob Lamar in Time, Ronald Reagan said: "Drugs are menacing our society. They're threatening our values and undercutting our institutions. They're killing our children." The First Lady continued: "Today there is a drug and alcohol epidemic in this country, and no one is safe from it—not you, not me and certainly not our children, because this epidemic has their names written on it." The whole effort was widely criticized for its simplicity, its general lack of understanding of the real problems facing youth, and its superficiality. Specifically, the President's message was denounced for budgeting approximately $3 billion to fight the war on drugs but refusing to offer any real solutions to the problem. Many educators and health professionals recognized the need to create more in-depth educational programs to deal with drug use, particularly among youth with disadvantaged backgrounds and those living in decaying urban communities.
As a mental health therapist, Crutcher had first-hand experience with the issues facing disadvantaged youth. He also expressed his moral commitment to protect kids. In School Library Journal Online, he told Betty Carter:
"For me, the moral thing is to set up a structure that protects kids emotionally, physically and spiritually, which is to say, 'When something hurts you, come talk to me about it. I will hear you and not punish out of fear. There's nothing you can tell me that will make me turn my back. But I'm not going to keep you in the dark about anything. I'm going to protect you from bad guys. I'm going to protect you from running out on the street … I'm going to do all those things, but my moral job with you is to be there and accept you.'"
Crutcher's realistic and sympathetic treatment of his characters in the novel serves to reflect the need for a more comprehensive and honest approach to the subject of drugs and the other problems teens must face in their day-to-day lives. Crutcher's effort also worked to humanize the problem. His novel shows that not every young person in America was on drugs—as implied by the perceived national crisis—and those who might experiment with drugs were not to be dismissed as junkies. He tries to emphasize that these kids have many redeeming qualities and have the ability to contribute to society. Perhaps most evident is Crutcher's message that troubled teens desperately need support from responsible, caring adults and their communities in order to safely navigate their rocky adolescence.
Gang Violence in the 1980s
The Crazy Horse Electric Game addresses the prevalence of gang violence in the small cities of America by highlighting an Asian youth gang who terrorize the local community and school. At the time the novel was written, street gangs were spreading from the major cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago into smaller towns and cities. In 1984, there were 28,500 gang members in Los Angeles with 20,000 of those members living outside of the city. Federal researches also reported in 1984 that two-thirds of the cities reporting gang violence had populations under 500,000, which included suburbs of major cities like New Haven, Connecticut; Jackson, Mississippi; and Portsmouth, Virginia.
The spread of gangs into smaller cities was directly related to the fact that the same problems that plagued major cities, such as poverty, racial separation, youth unemployment, and broken families, were now affecting smaller cities. In addition, when youths moved from the inner cities, they often started gangs in their new surroundings. Another new problem that surfaced was that gang violence was not confined to the streets anymore; the activity often spread onto school grounds in suburban areas.
When The Crazy Horse Electric Game was published, Chris Crutcher had already established a solid reputation for himself as a refreshing new voice of young-adult fiction that appealed to both critics and audiences. Most reviewers had praised him for addressing popular themes with adolescents, such as divorce, drugs, mental and physical handicaps, and gang violence in a manner that managed to be both humorous and unsentimental. However, critics' opinions were mixed about the effectiveness of The Crazy Horse Electric Game. Todd Morning, in his review in The School Library Journal, states:
Willie's present-tense narration is annoying, and does not work well for this story that covers several years. The author is best in the effective description of Willie's effort to recover from his injury. But this is the best that can be said for a novel that often seems contrived.
Roger Sutton of the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books agrees with SLJ, saying:
Crutcher's special brand of tough but tender machismo (used to good effect in Running Loose) is on uneasy ground of sentimentality here, and the thematic concerns are too obvious.
Despite these criticisms, other reviewers praised Crutcher for his development of eccentric yet truthful characters and his honest portrayal of harsh realities. Pam Spencer in Voice of Youth Advocates notes that "this book could have ended 'happily ever after' with Willie returning home to girlfriend and parents, all waiting for him with open arms. But tragedies don't leave a family unscarred." It is Crutcher's commitment to examining subjects with substance that led Susie Wilde of Children's Literature to say that "the story is a poignant telling of courage, the struggle to survive life on all levels, and an examination of values once held dear."
When Crutcher received the Margaret A. Edwards Award in 2000, he solidified his mission to continue writing about adolescence because it is such a crucial time in one's life. He told Betty Carter of School Library Journal Online that he writes about teenagers because "they're on the edge of having to live their lives themselves. Those initial decisions they make are really important." However, it is also Crutcher's wish to write about some of the most controversial subjects for teenagers, such as sexual abuse, which he covers in two of his books, Running Loose and Chinese Handcuffs. As a result, his works have occasionally been banned by conservative school districts. In fact, Booklist refused to even review Chinese Handcuffs. Crutcher disagrees with the idea that it's necessary to protect children from life's uglier truths and admits to dealing with these same issues in his own adolescence and suffering because of it. In an interview with Betty Carter for School Library Journal Online, Crutcher said:
I had a mom who didn't want me to feel bad. She wanted me to think everything was going to be all right because she wanted them to be all right…. When I got out on my own, I had to take a look and say sometimes things don't turn out okay and sometimes there isn't a happily ever after, and all those things they tell you about marriage and relationships and jobs are sometimes just not the truth…. I don't think we should trump the bad, but there's a world out there. There's a good chance at some time in your life you're gonna run into it.
Despite the censorship, or perhaps because of it, Crutcher's novels always seem to find their way into his readers' hands. While conducting a writer's workshop in Houston, Crutcher was approached by a young girl who was the victim of sexual abuse and had read Chinese Handcuffs. After reading the novel, the girl felt safe enough to seek help. Experiences like these give Crutcher the fuel to keep writing while refusing to shy away from the controversy that some could say has become a signature of his work. He told Heather Vogel Frederick in Publisher's Weekly that he knows "it's risky business letting people have their own lives, particularly if they are our children." But he's willing to take that risk because, he adds, "I'm only interested in stories that I care about…. If I don't feel passionate I can't write."
Drohan is a professional editor and writer who specializes in fiction and nonfiction for young adults and children. In the following essay, she ex-plores a concept prevalent in The Crazy Horse Electric Game and other novels in the young-adult genre, which concerns a loss of childhood innocence and the idea of confronting one's mortality during adolescence. While life's learning experiences often occur during tragic events, those hard lessons later prove invaluable as young people try to make sense of their lives.
Critics have recognized that Chris Crutcher's The Crazy Horse Electric Game explores how a young man must dig deep within himself to find his inner strength. It's a story of personal courage, and the structure of the story highlights the journey that many young people must take in order to understand their place in the world. The novel is told from the point of view of an unnamed narrator, and it opens with the statement, "Sometimes he remembers it as if it were unfolding in front of him this very minute, all of it; event by amazing event. And sometimes it seems as if it all happened a long, long time ago, maybe in another lifetime." This statement implies that the protagonist, Willie Weaver, has endured a tragedy that dramatically affected his outlook on life and one that still affects him to this day. Even more compelling is the idea that the protagonist is now an old man, looking back on his life. However, it is soon revealed that the event in question occurred just two years ago when Willie was sixteen years old, reaffirming the concept that coming of age means the attainment of maturity.
Willie Weaver comes from a long line of athletes. His grandfather was a legendary athlete at Notre Dame while his father holds the distinction of playing in a winning game of the Rose Bowl in 1968. Crutcher provides this family history as a way to give readers a strong idea of Willie's sense of entitlement to his gifts as a baseball pitcher. While Willie's life is far from perfect—his father is emotionally distant while his mother is still grieving over the loss of her infant daughter—the summer of his sixteenth year is full of promise and possibility. As Willie approaches the championship game for his team, Samson Floral, he has the kind of confidence that comes from never enduring any real obstacles in his life: "He's always been better at sports than any kid his age, so he's never felt any different than this. It's just the way things are; he's supposed to be a hero." Willie feels invincible as his body will do anything he asks of it and his teammates would "[sell] their souls to play on the same team as him."
Crutcher provides a moment of foreshadowing just before the game as Willie and his father have a rare moment of closeness. During the conversation, William Sr. tells his son to remember everything that happens up to and during the game. Speaking from experience, William Sr. relates the Rose Bowl as the highlight of his career and how he savored every moment because "[he] didn't know if [he'd] ever be that good at anything again." Willie listens to his father's words but does not hold them close to his heart because he knows the game will belong to him. Crutcher uses this opportunity to show Willie's bravado and naivete, and while Willie doesn't realize it, readers will understand that those very words will come back to haunt him.
Winning the game serves to bolster Willie's sense of immortality. Because he made a miraculous play and took his team to the championship, Willie has yet another reason to feel blessed. The game takes on a magical quality, which dramatically heightens Willie's sudden fall from grace. During the weekend vacation by the lake, Willie decides to take the last water-skiing run of the day, even though his body is fatigued. He pushes himself, riding high on the adrenaline that comes from the speed and power of the water. However, his shoulders begin to ache and his legs go numb, which leave him vulnerable to the water. The accident occurs quickly, and Willie is knocked unconscious. Ironically, Willie's father panics and is unable to help him, which points out another element in Crutcher's coming-of-age theme. It's the moment when children understand that their parents are fallible.
Willie is devastated by the accident and stays out of school for as long as possible. The idea of being confronted by his classmates and teammates is too much to bear. Not only will they see the full extent of Willie's disability, but it also means Willie must face what he's lost by watching his girlfriend, Jenny, and his friends, continue to excel in sports. Willie can't help feeling that he hates his friends because they can still do all the things he can't do. Willie's sense of martyrdom grows as he searches for the reason he must endure this hardship: "He'd give anything to step back over that tiny sliver of time—the point of impact with the water ski—and be just a hair more cautious; back off the edge just enough. But the circumstances that allowed the Crazy Horse Electric game to be will never happen again, because he can't step back." By forcing Willie to relive the moment over and over again in his head, Crutcher highlights Willie's failure to fully accept what has happened to him.
When Willie decides the only answer to his problems is to leave Montana, it is unclear whether or not this is the right decision. This is a turning point in the novel, when Willie's actions could be interpreted as further denial and a wish to escape his problems. However, as Willie begins his journey, his thoughts fall to his girlfriend, Jenny, and her betrayal. Crutcher uses this relationship to have Willie learn one of life's more important lessons—that even the people you trust most in the world can lie. As Willie continues his journey by himself, he proceeds to learn hard lessons about life. Even though Willie's been through difficult times, he will come to realize that it's no guarantee that he's safe from further harm. Arriving in the bus terminal in Oakland, Willie is confronted by a stream of transients for whom "desperate times are the order of the day. Abandon hope is written across their faces in greasy city dirt." This gives Willie yet another epiphany—he is not special in his state of suffering. In fact, there are people in the world that have it much harder than he does.
When Willie is the victim of a violent gang attack, he thinks he'd give anything in the world to be back in Montana because "he never had any idea there was this in the world." His rude awakening to life outside his small hometown further confuses Willie, and his survival instincts begin to take shape. He understands now that he must dig deep within himself just to live another day. He has no other choice but to try and make the best of his situation. This results in his rescue by a local black bus driver and part-time pimp named Lacey Casteel. Lacey represents an opportunity for Willie, and while Willie understands that Lacey is in a dubious line of business, he realizes that he needs Lacey and he's in no position to make snap moral judgments about anyone. Lacey is quick to see that Willie is not wise to the ways of the world and jokingly tells Willie that he ought to find a place close to the bus station as it would keep Willie apprised of what the world is really like. Willie is beginning to understand those very words: "Something changed in him after last night, after he survived what he was sure was his last second on earth, and from now on Willie Weaver's going to take whatever he has to take to survive."
What Do I Read Next?
- The Ironman: A Novel, by Chris Crutcher, is an intense look into the life of a seventeen-year-old athlete whose strained relationship with his father lands him in an anger management group, where he must deal with his feelings among other emotionally-challenged students.
- Carl Deuker's Heart of a Champion chronicles the close friendship of two boys, who bond over their love of baseball while struggling with some of life's more difficult challenges, specifically alcoholism.
- Roughnecks is Thomas Cochran's debut novel about a high-school senior who believes his performance on the football field is inherently connected to discovering the truth about himself.
- Chris Crutcher's Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes follows the friendship between a physically-deformed girl and the boy who stays overweight for fear of losing his best friend.
When Willie enrolls in the OMLC (One More Last Chance) High School, he is surrounded by other disadvantaged kids. His friendship with the physical education teacher, Lisa, not only helps Willie regain his physical strength but it proves to Willie that once he begins to reach out to others and really try to recover, there are people he can depend on for help. It is a conversation with Lisa that helps him come to terms with his accident. When he asks her, "why me?", she confronts him directly without pity and puts the blame right on his shoulders, saying, "You crippled yourself because you stretched the rules till they broke. Sim-ple as that." Willie is not satisfied with this explanation and mentions God, implying that if he does exist, there is no good reason why God hurt Willie. However, Lisa gives him the lecture of a lifetime: "You had to go a little faster than you could, push out there at the edge because you thought nothing could hurt you. The rules don't slack off for naivete…. You broke the rules, you got hurt."
By the end of the novel, Willie has worked so hard to recover that it's impossible to see that he has any disability. He has expanded his horizons, thanks to tai chi lessons that taught him that "his mind and body are mere extensions of each other." By living and experiencing events that never would have occurred had the accident never taken place, Willie realizes how his loss of innocence has brought him to a better place, that pain and suffering are a necessary part of life. Every moment of his life is a part of who he is and this gives him a power he never had. In his speech at graduation, Willie expresses his gratitude over the fact that no one at the school ever preached to him, but instead "let [him] figure it out for [himself], demanded that [he] figure it out for [himself]." He's ready to go back home and face the unknown. He's not sure if he can make it, but he knows he's strong enough to try.
Finally, Crutcher uses the graduation speech in order to show Willie's full transformation: "There are lots of people … whose lives are protected from the day they're born until the day they die. But no matter how wonderful those lives seem, if they're not contested, never put up against the wall, then they exist inside very narrow walls, and because of that I believe they lose value, in the most basic sense of the word." This realization is the culmination of Willie's facing his own mortality—that it's only when you lose everything you hold dear that you are able to really accomplish anything. Even if he could go back to his old carefree, charmed life, he would choose not to. The essence of the novel puts forth some of Crutcher's own hard-held beliefs, that you cannot protect children from harm or stop them from falling, but you can be there to pick them back up.
Source: Michele Drohan, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale Group, 2001.
In the following essays, Davis explores the "strong" characters and "painful" subject matter Crutcher presents in The Crazy Horse Electric Game.
There's a point near the end of The Crazy Horse Electric Game when Willie has gone home to face the people and things he ran out on. He finds his parents divorced and his mom remarried, his dad has become a brutal drunk and tells him "I'm not your dad," and his old girlfriend Jenny calls him a son of a bitch. He rides up into the hills on the motorcycle he and his dad used to ride together, and the narrator tells us: "Willie can't believe there's this much sadness in the world."
When we consider Crutcher's status in young adult literature it might be hard to believe that any of his books were ever met with disapproval or disdain. But Crazy Horse was, and so was Chinese Handcuffs. Crazy Horse is, in fact, the only one of Crutcher's books that wasn't a unanimous ALA Best. He enjoys telling the story of how the novel was effectively banned in Hawaii. In that state, he says, a book has a chance to be reviewed twice. If two librarians veto it, the state buys only one copy. The first librarian who reviewed Crazy Horse said it was trash, and poorly edited trash to boot, and such an awful book that it had no right to be published. Crutcher uses the word vicious to describe her commentary. The second found it well written but so depressing that she couldn't recommend it for young adults. Proponents of the book worked two years to overturn this initial decision.
Crazy Horse is full of sadness, and so is life—most of us recognize this and admit it. But to call it "depressing" isn't a measure of the book; it's a measure of the reader. Other readers argue that Crazy Horse presents a positive view of life and is uplifting because, while it imitates accurately the painful nature of our existence, it also allows for "one more last chance" to learn the rules that can save us.
Art is different from life. Art—at least the storytelling art—is an imitation of life made by human beings in an attempt to bring life's complexity into focus. A story is controlled. Nothing in it happens by chance. Yes, as the story is composed, inspiration and intuition do strike, unconscious forces rise to the light and bestow their surprises. But by the time the story is ready to go out into the world and meet its readers, it's been revised until not just every story element but every single word has become the result of the writer's conscious choice.
We can be there as Willie Weaver puts on the life jacket that's too big for him. When he pushes the limits of his waterskiing ability, falls and gets hit in the head with the ski, "and the life jacket slips up, trapping his arms and head, and Willie slips into darkness" and into the brain damage that destroys what might have been a one-in-a-million athlete, we know the cause—not just the only cause we can observe but the only cause Willie could have controlled: He shouldn't have worn a life jacket that was too big. He broke the rules, and he paid.
Here's the point: God's will doesn't matter—not in a Crutcher world. Willie has no control over God's will. Willie can, however, refuse to wear a life jacket that doesn't fit; he can choose not to push his ability when he's too tired to exercise it. He can do something to alter possibilities; he can be a causal agent in his own life. There are things he can control.
Religious faith, which is to say the belief in realities beyond what we can see or understand, does not bring us control. Religious faith brings peace to some of us, but it doesn't bring control. Religious faith, in fact, is relinquishing control. And control, in a Crutcher world, is a method of salvation.
Listen once more to Crutcher speaking through another of his personas. This is Lisa, the PE teacher at One More Last Chance School, responding to Willie's question about why he got hurt:
"You mean … why you crippled yourself?"
Willie grimaces and nods. Lisa always words things like that; why you crippled yourself instead of why you got crippled….
"You crippled yourself because you stretched the rules till they broke. Simple as that.
"God didn't cripple you, Willie. You did. You stretched the rules till they broke."
This question about why things happen, why the innocent suffer along with the guilty, this stuff about the nature of life is the core element in all of Crutcher's work. This core begins to glow in Running Loose; Crutcher puts it under greater pressure in Stotan!; it erupts in The Crazy Horse Electric Game; and the magma's heat and speed intensify as it flows through Chinese Handcuffs and Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes. We have no obligation to believe and adopt this view of the world Crutcher presents, but if we don't see it, then we're missing what he spends so much effort trying to show and tell us.
What is this molten material flowing through the books? It's pain, the most common currency in life, a great deal more common than love. Pain is the element that allows so many readers to see their own lives mirrored in Crutcher's work. We are all experts in pain. Even those of us who can't articulate our pain—especially those—recognize it and know absolutely when a storyteller presents it accurately.
In The Crazy Horse Electric Game the pain starts before the action of the story. The Dragon, incarnate in sudden infant death syndrome, took Willie's sister Missy. The pain of her death haunts Willie, Big Will, and Sandy Weaver, and the fact of her death—the fact that it just happened, that it was nobody's fault—hovers over the story until the final moments.
What we said about Stotan! in relation to Running Loose we can say about Crazy Horse in relation to Stotan!: The same elements are here; the differences are intensity and focus. Remember what Crutcher gives as the reason his books become more and more painful: "it is the increased damage I've seen, [and] my increased awareness of what that damage is." He's speaking about the damage we do to one another, and this damage—as opposed to the damage done to us by circumstance—is what he focuses on more closely here and hereafter. In Sarah Byrnes, for example, the damage Virgil Byrnes did to his daughter is what fuels the central action of the story; in Ironman Beau Brewster's central battle is to let go of the anger that's the result of the damage his father did him.
There are the same thematic elements and similar character types, but there's also something different about Crazy Horse. We feel it in the opening sentence: "Sometimes he remembers it as if it were unfolding in front of him this very minute." What's different about this narration?
What's different is a shift in point of view. The position from which the author allows us to view the action of the story has changed. Crutcher has chosen third-person limited narration over first-person here. "Limited" refers to the degree of omniscience the narrator exercises. In this case the narrator limits to one the number of characters whose minds we're allowed to enter. He can shift focus into Willie's mind, allowing the reader to see as Willie sees and be present in his thoughts.
This change from first-person narration is another example of Crutcher's increased confidence in the craft of writing and maybe also in the magnitude of his subject matter. It takes courage and skill to abandon the first-person narrators with whom he's had so much success. These characters' voices alone are engaging enough to hook readers. But Crutcher steps outside his main character here and allows a more distanced, objective persona to tell his story. Then again we can look at this in another way: one might say that now, in third-person, Crutcher can tell the story himself—in his own voice, out of his own experience, directed by his own passions—rather than under the limitations inherent in a youthful pose.
The biggest difference this change in point of view creates is seen—is heard, really—in the story's tone. Tone refers to the storyteller's attitude toward subject matter; in Crazy Horse, since the narrator is no longer invested in events, the presentation of events has a more distant, objective ring. If the narration is successful, as Crutcher's is, there's no loss of emotional intensity. The source of the intensity just shifts from narrator to focal character.
An intriguing and illuminating way to consider Crazy Horse is as the fulfillment of Walker Dupree's musings at the conclusion of Stotan! We remember that Walker says if he ever makes it to adulthood and decides to turn back and help someone grow up, as a parent, teacher, or coach (or writer), he will concentrate on "dispelling myths, clearing up unreal expectations." And this is just what Crutcher does in Crazy Horse. Before Willie's injury changed everything, "his father was mythic to him," and part of the positive transformation that results from the way Willie's injury changes his perspective on the world is that this mythic quality gets busted.
The other word Walker uses is expectations, and in the book's final pages, when Willie learns about the hell his parents' lives became, we hear his mother tell him something that warrants quotation:
"[Y]ou don't always get what you expect. I wish someone, sometime when I was growing up, would have told me what expectations would get me…. Our parents, schools, everyone tells us things will be a certain way when we're adults and if they're not that way, we should make them be; or at least pretend. But after a certain point that just doesn't work."
What Willie's mother says here about parents, schools, and everyone telling us things will be a certain way—and that we should pretend they are even if they aren't—lead us into another theme that evolves from Stotan!, which is the theme that to speak and act honestly is the healthiest way to live for us and for the world around us. If this isn't the major theme of The Crazy Horse Electric Game, it is certainly the novel's driving force.
Consider, for example, how directly it evolves from the concluding lines of Stotan!: "But first things first," Walker says. "Right now I've got to get dressed and go pick up Devnee. Gotta set her straight." What Walker has learned about lying—along with coming to believe that everything unsaid is a lie—is that lying unbalances the liar and the world. Walker lies to Devnee, and neither of them is able to make decisions based on "what is," because what is can no longer be perceived accurately.
The theme of honesty permeates Crazy Horse. As chapter 2 opens, Big Will and Willie take one of their evening rides on Big Will's 700 Honda. They wear their helmets for Willie's mom's benefit as they pull out of the driveway but take them off at the edge of town. It's dishonest, and it's also messing with "the rules." This story element wouldn't be particularly significant if Crutcher hadn't made it a part of the unity of his story by returning to it in the conclusion. Now that Willie has learned from pain and from the wisdom of others, he "thinks of strapping the helmet to the sissy bar … but that's just like the old days and he keeps it on." Willie won't lie now, not explicitly or by omission; and if he's going to break the rules—like Crutcher himself does by not wearing a helmet—he's not going to be surprised when the rules break him.
Willie's mom knew all along that the guys dumped their helmets. She reveals this to Willie just moments before he hurts himself waterskiing. "Don't get too taken by fast things," she says. "They can hurt you. One of these days you and your dad may have to pay for all your recklessness." Consider this and then remember what Max told Walker in Stotan!: "This is a world where you pay for everything you do."
Crutcher shines his honesty spotlight on Big Will again as chapter 2 closes. Willie is thinking of Missy's death and how it caused the Weaver universe to shift. "Big Will held the family together with his powerful, stoic presence," and finally time began to dull the pain. This was "something Big Will couldn't take head on, something he had to turn his back on." Here's Crutcher's point: if we turn our backs on it—on pain, on loss, on the truth—it will come back and kick the hell out of us, which is exactly what Missy's death finally does to the Weaver family. Powerful stoicism doesn't do it. Allowing ourselves to feel and to express the pain is what keeps us from being devoured by it. Crutcher tells us again and again: we can't fight the Dragon head-on, but we can go with him and beat him.
Cyril Wheat, the therapist Willie sees after his injury—and after the frightening reaction to the LSD he took at the party—is a Crutcher persona more Crutcher-like than most, particularly in his sense of humor and his commitment to honesty. When Willie first meets him Wheat is wearing his Gay Vegetarian Nazis for Jesus T-shirt, and when Willie gives him a look he shrugs and says, "I'm a joiner." This is vintage Crutcher humor in real life (he wears a Nuke the Children shirt), as well as in writing. Wheat's response to the events and feelings Willie recounts is this:
"A lot of what happens now depends on truth. When you're afraid your girlfriend is going away or your friends are keeping you around just because they feel sorry for you, you have to say that to them."
Some of the book's most incisive and painful honesty is present in Willie's feelings about Jenny. He's accepted the manager position on her basketball team, and "he's aware that something nagging down deep in him wants Jenny to blow it." This honest portrayal of human reactions is one of the reasons people trust Crutcher as a storyteller. We all know—even those of us who can't articulate it—that this is an accurate portrait of pain.
Willie tells Cyril about his jealousy, and the therapist's response is grounded in the healing nature of the truth, in spite of how much the truth hurts: "That golden boy isn't you anymore, and as long as you keep measuring yourself up against him, you're gonna be mad as hell at everybody…. And you'll lose your girl."
The pain becomes too much for Willie to handle when his loss of Jenny is confirmed. She couldn't muster the courage to tell Willie she liked another boy. "I didn't know what to do," she says. And Willie replies, "You … coulda … just … told me … the … truth." Jenny then goes on to tell him the truth that if he'd made any attempt to be decent she'd have stayed with him. "But no! Not Willie Weaver! If he can't be a hero, then to hell with everyone else." Willie "just wants to hurt her back." When he calls Jenny a bitch his life in Coho, Montana, has unraveled to the last thread. That night he steals money from his folks and catches a Greyhound west.
We need to remember that Willie is "a cripple" now. This is his physical state when he arrives in Oakland. Crutcher doesn't use the term physically challenged, because his commitment is to accuracy. He uses crippled because Willie is, indeed, "a damaged or defective object." This diction is another element in the matrix of honesty Crutcher creates. It's also important to consider in terms of story structure that if Willie isn't profoundly damaged, his recovery can't be profound or heroic enough to touch us as a great story does; if he's not brought low, he can't raise himself high.
The worst of Willie's pain isn't physical, although the beating he gets from the Jo Boys is no fun. The worst of Willie's pain is the fear and humiliation he feels now that he's been brought so low and found himself so alone. "If I were okay, I'd beat this kid to death," Willie says about the gang's leader. Before he loses consciousness he realizes "he'd give anything in the world to be back in Coho." Willie never realized there was this much poverty and savagery and desolation … and pain in the world. Willie continues to suffer in Oakland, but this is probably his low point.
Crutcher shifts his focus slightly after Willie moves in with Lacey and enrolls at One More Last Chance School. This is a new Willie in a new world. There's so much for Willie to learn now that he's been forced into a new perspective and rendered capable of learning from it. Among the vital things he learns is the reason he's able to learn them. Crutcher makes this clear in Willie's speech to the commencement audience. He says he's aware that if they had known him back in Montana they would have hated his guts because he had everything, including people around him to protect him and make sure he didn't lose it. "And there are lots of people like that," he says, "people whose lives are protected from the day they're born until the day they die."
But no matter how wonderful those lives seem, if they're not contested, never put up against the wall, then they exist inside very narrow walls, and because of that I believe they lose value, in the most basic sense of the word. I guess what I'm saying is that my life is more valuable because I got knocked out of my favored spot. I can't believe I'm saying that, but I am and I know it's true. I learned it from the people who picked me up here.
We hear Crutcher's voice in the passage, of course. In a body of work packed with vital exposition, there's probably no expository passage more important than this one. Remember, again, that Crutcher has seen so much damage done. So, how do the damaged make something positive out of all their pain? We accept our new condition and the new view of the world it gives us, and we act on our new perception.
Willie's first positive contact with humanity in Oakland is Lacey Casteel, bus driver and pimp. Lacey is not a role model, but there is much to learn from him. He's capable of kindness in spite of the overriding brutality in his character. He takes Willie in after the beating, and he is sincere at the end of the story when, in his note to Big Will, he says: "Here you boy back. He fix. Be careful how you treet him, he special. If you don't want him, send him back."
Lacey tells Willie he's taking him in for a reason Willie doesn't know. We discover Lacey's motivation after he's helped Willie enroll at One More Last Chance. Lacey comes home drunk late one night and finds the note Willie has left him about a phone call from his former wife. Lacey says he needs to "purge his soul" and takes Willie out for a drive. "I beat my boy," he tells Willie as they drive. "Start on beatin' him. Couldn't stop. Beat my boy numb." They park and walk to a huge, dark institution, climb over the fence, and stop beneath a window too high to see into. And then in one of the most powerful scenes in Crutcher's work—reminiscent of Jeff's empty lane scene in Stotan! because of the power and sharpness of focus but more complex and illustrative of greater skill with prose—Lacey grabs a drainpipe and pulls himself up even with the window. Willie hears a moan and looks up to see Lacey's face go soft. Willie watches the man stare into the window through a "bottom-less despair." Lacey drops to the ground and tells Willie to look. "Don' worry," Lacey says, "he don' see you." So Willie climbs on Lacey's back, stands on his shoulders, and looks in. He sees
a tall, extremely thin black boy; he could be anywhere from fifteen to forty. His long arms hang out of his plain white state-issue shirt like useless ebony twigs, their outstanding features the gnarled, twisted elbows and knuckles…. A narrow string of spittle hangs from one side of his mouth, and as it lengthens, finally dropping to the floor, the boy makes no attempt to stop it. He's vacant; gone
Listen to the passage Crutcher presents as transition from Willie's visual recognition of what Lacey has done to Lacey's explanation of its consequences. This is Willie's intellectual recognition:
[T]his is family gone crazy. It comes in a flash the boy before him is wrecked; the man beneath his feet, desperately holding on with everything he's got to stay just above the quicksand. This is what happens when we astonish ourselves with our capacity to be vicious; when we realize so late how our expectations have betrayed us.
We hear, of course, the theme of the destructive power of expectations.
Willie feels through his feet the vibration of Lacey's sobs. Lacey falls and Willie tumbles to the ground. Lacey lies there crying. "He jus' there hauntin' me," the man says. "He there an' I can't see him; they won't let me go close." Now Willie knows that Lacey took him in to take this boy's place.
This passage is illustrative of a number of things, only a few of which we've discussed here. But too important to go unmentioned is how the passage illustrates Crutcher's growth as a writer. The writer of Running Loose could not have written this. It's too understated—which is to say too restrained—in its description; it's too complex, and it's also too wise. Crutcher has seen so much more damage now and knows so much more surely the source of it. Willie's physical healing begins at One More Last Chance. The school enhances his emotional healing also, to be sure, but Willie has hit bottom now and he's ready to start stroking back up. Crutcher makes this clear in Willie's response to the school's required resume. He was "absolutely straight" about the reasons he left home, "crystal clear in his final statement that he wasn't going back to Montana." Willie has changed: no more lies, not explicitly and not by omission. The truth does set us free, and one of the things it sets us free to do is heal ourselves.
Andre, the school's director, is another Crutcher character. His physicality, his forthright speech, his humor, and his honesty are mirrors of these qualities in Crutcher himself. Look at him and listen to him, and you'll see and hear Crutcher. Except that Andre is black and Crutcher is white. Listen, for example, to Andre describing the Last Chance students: "Some of these kids seem pretty damaged before you get to know them. Some of them seem pretty damaged after you get to know them, but I'm sure there are friends for you here."
And Willie does make friends at school, two of whom are women: Lisa, the PE teacher, and Angel, a fellow student and prostitute who works for Lacey. Few readers would dispute that these are "strong" women characters, but few would think of them—particularly Angel—as role models. Lisa, whom we can see as an older Elaine Ferrel from Stotan!, might be more overtly sexual with Sammy, the Tai Chi teacher (and a Max Il Song character) than some readers find appropriate in a school setting. And Angel isn't simply a teenage prostitute, she's a teenage prostitute resolved not to give up the trade. Willie asks Lacey to let Angel go, but Angel doesn't want out. "You think I'm a whore because of Lacey?" Angel asks. "If Lacey wasn't my pimp, I'd get someone else. I'm a whore because that's how I survive."
When we talk about "strong" characters in literature we don't mean "admirable," although strong characters are often admirable in at least some ways. Lisa is a fine athlete, for example, and it's through her coaching that Willie learns to compensate for most of the physical damage he has suffered. She's also honest, which Crutcher accents particularly in the ease and openness with which she's able to be sexual with Sammy while Willie's around.
Literary characters are referred to as "strong" when they are sharply delineated and consistent and when they know and accept themselves. Angel, for example, does not lie to herself, and she knows the source of one of the strongest currents in her personality. "You know how girls get to be whores?" she asks Willie. "Girls get to be whores when they grow up thinking sex is the only way to get anything." She then goes on to say she had sex first with her uncle when she was 7 and that it went on until she was 17. It was ugly and she hated it, but he was nice to her and gave her things she never would have gotten in another way.
Lisa and Angel are deeply tied to the unity of the story. They're important to the plot because of Lisa's role as mentor figure and Angel as the focus of Willie's romantic interest and the source of some painful information about the complexity of life. And they are integral to the theme of honesty.
It's not hard to see that The Crazy Horse Electric Game ventures deeper than the previous books into wild country, and we are not, of course, speaking about California here. We're speaking about the wild country of human life. In spite of language and subject matter that make it more difficult to teach in public school, it is still a novel full of victories for the damaged souls who populate it. Hawk, the basketball player who becomes Willie's friend, attends their graduation ceremony with a cast on the arm he broke protecting his mother from his drugged-out brother. Hawk stands when he receives his diploma, looks out at his father and says, "I tol' you I ain't no worthless sh—." And Telephone Man, one of Crutcher's strangest and most touching characters, "who wears a full set of telephone repair tools on his hip, giving him the appearance of an AT&T gun-slinger from outer space," concludes his commencement speech by looking over at Hawk and saying, "Hawktor Doctor must really like me … and that's the first time anybody really liked me and I'm glad I went here."
But here's the kind of victory that makes the book most difficult for teachers and librarians in schools besieged by book challenges:
[Angel] takes the diploma, looks out at the audience, then over to the graduates and simply says, "Thanks." Willie looks out to see Lacey nodding his head and clapping.
It's difficult to justify this complexity and lack of resolution to some people. Such people want Lacey and Angel, pimp and prostitute, nailed up tight in a box with the word BAD written on it. But Crutcher is wiser than that. He knows that human beings are both ghastly and glorious, and that even in their ghastliness and pain they are capable of heroic endurance, such as he implies here as Willie's bus heads out of Oakland, taking him back to Montana and more heavy jolts of sadness:
Willie watches Lacey standing, arms folded, looking powerful and confident, without a trace of the horror in his life, and Willie marvels at the astonishing ability of human beings to go on.
Source: Terry Davis, "Yes, There Is Much Sadness in the World," in Presenting Chris Crutcher, Twayne Publishers, 1997, pp. 75-87.
In the following essay, McDonnell traces Crutcher's personal background and connections to situations Crutcher explores in his novels.
Writing with vitality and authority that stems from personal experience in Running Loose, Stotan!, and The Crazy Horse Electric Game (all Greenwillow), Chris Crutcher gives readers the inside story on young men, sports, and growing up. His heroes—sensitive, reflective young men, far from stereotypic jocks—use sports as an arena to test personal limits; to prove stamina, integrity, and identity; and to experience loyalty and cooperation as well as competition.
Louie, in Running Loose, is no natural athlete. "I've never been all that good. Not too big, not too fast, and a lot more desire to be a football player than to play football, if you know what I mean." Walker, the swim team captain in Stotan!, values his team experience over his personal achievement. "I'm part of a group of really special guys—and a girl—who happen to swim…. It's a lot more important to me to be a part of that group of humans than it is to be in a school of fast fish." Willie, the gifted baseball player who makes his most famous move in The Crazy Horse Electric Game, loses his athletic gift in a boating accident and must learn both a new way of moving and a new definition for himself. For all three, winning is not the goal; doing your best, stretching your limits, is the only true measure of success.
The vitality in these books comes from the characterization, the physical action, and quick dialogue. Crutcher gives us believable glimpses of locker rooms and practice sessions, spiced with irreverent, sometimes coarse, male humor. He shows brief awkward moments of romance in contrast with the honesty, ease, and trust of male friendships. These books are overwhelmingly male, peopled with teammates, coaches, bosses, fathers, and father figures. Women do appear as mothers, girlfriends, even as a coach, and issues of sex and love surface. In Running Loose the death of Louie's girlfriend is a central crisis in the book. But for the most part although women are attractive, strong, and smart, they are peripheral to the action, relegated more to fantasy than to day-to-day life.
The action scenes, the training sessions, games, and meets, provide a showcase for the strongest writing in the books. In these, Crutcher's knowledge of sports and his insight into the inner lives of young men merge. He shows not only the physical details of training and practice, the laps, exercises, drills, pacing, and strategies but also the personal experience, the pain, fatigue, exhilaration, pressures, and release. In Running Loose and Stotan! the final meets rise above simple athletic competition to take on deeper meanings. Athletes compete hoping for victory but also rejoice in one another's performances. Louie runs to prove his strength and independence in a school where his idealism and honesty have isolated him; the team in Stotan! swims in honor of their teammate, dying from a blood disease. In both cases the characters are supported and respected by their opponents. Competition can be unifying, not divisive. Over and over again the message is stated: don't give up; give it your best; run your own race.
"I think my job in this life is to be an observer. I'm never going to be one of those guys out there on the tip of the arrow of my time, presenting new ideas or inventing ways to get more information on a smaller chip. But I think I'll learn to see pretty well." The speaker is Walker Dupree, narrator of Stotan! but it could be Crutcher describing himself. Speaking directly about his writing, Crutcher said, "I want to be remembered as a storyteller, and I want to tell stories that seem real so that people will recognize something in their own lives and see the connections. We are all connected. That's what I like to explore and put into stories."
The connections between Crutcher's background and the situations he describes in his novels are numerous. Taken in order, Running Loose, Stotan!, and The Crazy Horse Electric Game give a rough outline of his life. He grew up in Cascade, Idaho, a town exactly like Trout in Running Loose, with wilderness nearby, deer in the backyard, driving licenses for fourteen-year-olds, and a school so small that athletes participate in every sport. He played football and basketball and ran track. "There was too much snow for baseball. The high-jumpers wore wet suits and practiced on snowdrifts." Like Louie, his father was the chairman of the school committee, a thoughtful, scientific man who appreciated independence and disliked people accepting things without questioning.
In college at Eastern Washington State, selected because the red and white of its catalog cover set it apart from others on the shelf, Chris swam competitively on a team like the one described in Stotan! "But the coach was even more maniacal." With his teammates he experienced a Stotan week that stretched them beyond the limits of their own endurance and forged the bonds of loyalty vividly depicted in Stotan!
After college Chris worked as a teacher and as director of an alternative school in Oakland, California, the model for the school described in The Crazy Horse Electric Game. The next stage of Chris Crutcher's life appears indirectly in his novels: fed up with waiting in lines and in traffic, he moved to Spokane where he works as a child and family therapist dealing with physical and sexual abuse cases. In Spokane he began to write seriously.
He now divides his week between his mental health work and his writing, enjoying the balance and contrast of the two. "In my work, the daily crisis of people's lives is so immediate. Time moves so fast. But the books are so permanent. They have their own life in time." Not surprisingly, he also makes time for running and basketball.
"I started writing late, when I recognized the need for a creative outlet in my life. Though I had read relatively little, I had always loved stories. So I gave it a go." While living in the Bay area, he experimented with fiction in a writing workshop. After moving to Spokane, he had time to develop his writing more fully. An author friend remembered one story that Chris had written earlier and suggested that he expand it. Running Loose was the result.
Chris Crutcher describes himself as being poorly read. "In high school I was less than a totally serious student. I never had a burning desire to be a writer then. In fact during my four years in high school I read one novel cover to cover: To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper)." He still doesn't read much, but through his work he hears stories every day. "I'm interested in relationships, in complexities, in seeing patterns in people's lives. I get information from other people's lives, and I put it into stories, expanding, adding more to make characters richer." Describing his writing process, he cites character as his primary source. "I start with character. Somewhere along the line I get plot. Plot comes last."
But inattention to plot in Crutcher's books is far overshadowed by the strength of characterization and dialogue, coupled with the detail and vitality of the sports scenes. Even when events are surprising, characters are consistently believable. Louie, Walker, and Willie, poised on the edge of manhood, measure themselves in sports and friendships and struggle with larger issues of integrity, dignity, and personal loss. Through their experiences, Chris Crutcher comments powerfully on the broader topic of growing up. At the end of Stotan! Walker speaks in a voice that echoes Chris Crutcher's own: "I think if I ever make it to adulthood, and if I decide to turn back and help someone grow up, either as a parent or a teacher or a coach, I'm going to spend most of my time dispelling myths, clearing up unreal expectations…. I think I'll learn to see pretty well. I think I'll know how things work—understand simple cause and effect—and, with any luck, be able to pass that on. And that's not such a bad thing."
Source: Christine McDonnell, "New Voices, New Visions: Chris Crutcher," in Horn Book, Vol. 64, No. 3, May 1988, pp. 332-5.
Bosc, Michael, "Street Gangs No Longer Just a Big-City Problem," in U.S. News & World Report, p. 108.
Carter, Betty, "Eyes Wide Open," in School Library Journal Online, June 2000.
Frederick, Heather Vogel, "What's Known Can't Be Known, " in Publisher's Weekly, February 1995, p. 183.
Lamar, Jacob V., "Rolling Out the Big Guns; The First Couple and Congress Press the Attack on Drugs," in Time, September 1986, p. 25.
Morning, Todd, Review, in School Library Journal, May 1987, p. 108.
Spencer, Pam, Review, in Voice of Youth Advocates, 1987.
Sutton, Roger, Review, in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, 1987.
Wilde, Susie, Review, in Children's Literature, 1987.
Davis, Terry, Presenting Chris Crutcher, Twayne Publishing, 1997.
This biography explores the author's life and work.
Gallo, Donald R., ed., Speaking for Ourselves: Autobiographical Sketches by Notable Authors of Books for Young Adults, National Council of Teachers of English, 1990.
A collection of autobiographical essays by young-adult authors, including Chris Crutcher, that discusses their lives and work.
Silvey, Anita, ed., Children's Books and Their Creators, Houghton Mifflin, 1995.
A collection of articles that explore children's book authors and the themes of their work.