Perhaps the most difficult fan fiction to write for Supernatural is the “Weechester/Teenchester” stories. Really good examples of the genre keep the characters both recognizable and yet subtly different because the boys are not yet the men they will become. Outstanding examples of the genre successfully strike that balance while staying loyal to the mythology and tone of the show and give the reader some insight into how that mythology and those characters came to be.
That is why, by any standard, “Westcott Preparatory Academy” (WPA) deserves to rank among the finest example of the type. By turns, funny, charming, comforting, disturbing, and sad, it is an opus – at 29 chapters no other word fits – that shows deep psychological insight, a profound sympathy for its characters and an astoundingly high level of craftsmanship that one rarely finds in professional writing let alone in fan fiction. It is no exaggeration to say that if you plan to read only one piece of Supernatural fan fiction this year, make it “Westcott Preparatory Academy.”
The story itself is simple and straightforward, when 16 year old Dean Winchester is diagnosed with diabetes, dad John and brother, 12 year old Sam are compelled to settle down and live a normal life. Moving to be nearer to Bobby, John eventually gets a job at an exclusive preparatory school which allows him to get the boys into the school tuition free. Sam is predictably excited and Dean apprehensive. Both boys and dad gradually find themselves growing happy in their new lives, but in the background, hovering like an ominous cloud is the life of Hunting and the temptations of the supernatural. Eventually, Dean is forced to make a choice between his increasing happiness and the obligations of duty that come with knowing more than other men.
The true genius in the story is the way in which it lets the reader know, without laying it out in so many words, how the Winchester boys ended up being where they are. It answers many of the questions that perceptive readers and fans may ask about the show. Why do Sam and John end up parting so bitterly? Why is Dean, a seemingly handsome and able young man, so tortured with doubt? Why is Bobby so seemingly dedicated to the family? Or even, at a mundane level, how does young Sam, a kid living most of his life on the road, end up getting into Stanford law?
The author answers some of these questions straight out, but others, with consummate skill, she merely hints at. Of course Sam is able to get into Stanford because he has an elite institution in his academic background. Suddenly the stretch seems that little bit more plausible. Of course Sam grows resentful toward his father as suddenly a life that was never open to him, and that he could only guess at, a life of friends and school and normality, becomes real – and when he is forced to leave it, the seeds are planted for a bitter dispute. Interestingly, it is a dispute far in the future, and we only get a taste of it in the story. Brilliant!!
Purists may scoff at the idea of Dean with diabetes, but it is a shrewd plot device. As fans of Supernatural know, Dean is the more emotional and instinctual but more reserved and outwardly less expressive of the Winchester boys. By giving Dean an illness that he must adapt to in terms of a lifestyle, Dean is forced to confront feelings and frustrations that would normally stay well below the surface. Moreover, as the illness requires Dean to rely on his family – instead of being the one always relied upon – he is forced to interact with them in a different way, and they to him. In short, the author gives the reader a realistic way to see into the nature of the characters.
That view is spot on. John Winchester is a tough ex-Marine who has seen a dark reality of the world and knows, as any Marine would, that he must confront it, not simply to avenge his beloved wife, but to protect his family and other innocents. Yet he is also a deeply devoted and loving father. His harshness comes from his need to protect his family from something that is quite literally beyond the imagination. When life becomes “normal,” he is able to let his guard down a little and do the things that any loving father would do for his children.
This, by the way, is entirely in keeping with the mythology of the show, where we have been told that John “doted” on his boys and where, even after Sam angrily went off to Stanford, we know that he kept tabs on his otherwise estranged youngest son. (Even Sam’s understandable upset when, at age 9, his father gave him a pistol to guard against the monster in the close takes on a whole different light. John’s action seems extreme, but in the context of a father who knows of the dark reality of monsters, but who cannot always be there to protect his son, it is an understandable step. To the son what looked extreme, to the father looked like the only precaution he could take to protect those he loved.) This constant recurrence, both direct and indirect, to the mythology of Supernatural is part of what makes WPA so effective. It is a story not just about the characters, but about the show itself.
The portrayal of Dean is even more effective and almost painful for that reason. The Dean we all know is there – yet convincingly younger. He has been taking on his family’s burdens and is cautious about his relationships. His love for his family is unconditional and he is deeply upset when his father and brother fight. When Dean actually discovers that someone wants to be his friend – the inaptly named Gray – his wariness and happiness in equal measures is poignant. When he falls for the local girl, his tenderness is palpable. Playboy Dean is gone and the young gentleman comes to fore. In short, we learn that Dean is a man who loves and loves deeply, and because he loves deeply he offers that love only with great reluctance. This is, in short, the Dean we will see on Supernatural. The tough guy who cries over his brother’s broken body and who will offer his own soul to save that brother. Again, the dark cloud of “Supernatural” hovers over the horizon, and in the 17 year old we gain a glimpse of the future.
We also see Dean’s painful lack of self-confidence. Never having trusted anyone outside his family, and there having to always meet his father’s rigorously high standards, he has not learned how to trust himself. When he thinks his best friend may have betrayed him, Dean thinks not that his friend was wrong, but that he was a fool. When his illness causes his father and brother pain, Dean blames himself. This too, is the Dean we will come to know, and it is achingly sad. Made more sad still by the fact that when he realizes that he is happy, he thinks that he is wrong for feeling that way.
The portrayal of Bobby and the pain that drives him to adopt the hapless Winchesters as a second family is also effectively explored, more strongly in fact than in the show itself. In the show, Bobby’s protestations of loyalty to the boys has always seemed a bit flat. Without backstory, it seemed almost perfunctory. Yet, WPA fills in the gap in a very realistic and moving way. Suddenly, Bobby is not just gruff Hunter and mentor, but a hurting man whose love for the Winchesters is noble becomes it overcomes that hurt.
If any of the major characters comes out a bit weak, it is Sam. WPA mostly deals with Dean and his relationship to his father, brother and friends through the prism of his illness. Consequently, there is not a lot for Sammy to do. He is what we expect him to be, a studious kid who loves to have friends and worships his brother. Underneath that, the author skillfully points toward that longing for normality that will lead Sam to break with his family. This part is all well done.
Unfortunately, the author’s treatment of Sam seems uneven. Most of the time, Sam seems younger than his 12 years, with his expressions of love and admiration for his brother seeming more appropriate to a younger child. Yet, on at least two occasions, Sam is made to say things that seem way over a 60 year old. (“Don’t deny this to me,” being one example.) This variation weakens the reader’s perception of Sam and loses some of the drama of his story.
There is an upside however. By making Sam seem younger than a 12 year old, the author is able, paradoxically, to magnify the depth of the relationship between the brothers. In Sam’s boyish enthusiasm and love for his brother, and Dean’s indulgent treatment of his younger sibling, we see the true depth of the love between them. It has been well said that the Winchester brothers often seem to be deep in a deafening trumpet blast of unstated emotions. Whether by accident or by design, the author’s handling of Sam gets around that problem.
The other characters are developed in varying degrees. Gray, Dean’s friend, is a likeable “fish out of water” young man. It is not hard to see how such a character could earn Dean’s trust. Kelsey, Dean’s girlfriend, does not stand out, and while we are told that she is a great girl, the only real exposition we get suggests that she is anything but. One wishes the author had explored this relationship in greater depth. If we can presume that this was Dean’s first love, it certainly would have added another layer to the author’s already insightful study of the older Winchester boy’s character.
The weakest characterizations are of Gray’s family and the “rich” kids at the school. Given what a likeable young man Gray is, it is a wonder that he does not get one of Dean’s rifles and take his whole family out in one postal rampage. None of these characters is anything more than one dimensional, not even stereotypes really – but caricatures. It’s as if they were cloned from the Ewing clan on “Dallas.” The headmaster of the school similarly seems not so much like John Houseman on “The Paper Chase,” as John Houseman pelted by gamma rays and transformed into the Headmaster Hulk. Many of the remainder of the teachers and students rarely get past the “intellectual snob/spoiled rich kid” archetypes.
There is nothing absolutely wrong with this, per se. However, one wishes the author had resisted the temptation to stereotype. There must be, in all of fiction writing, at least one or two well mannered, kind rich people, right? At any rate, it is a minor criticism, but given the author’s deep psychological insights into her characters, it is a surprise nonetheless.
For all its strengths, WPA does have its weaknesses. The school prank on Dean seems really quite contrived and not very convincing. If these kids are such spoiled rich brats, they could certainly have come up with something better than this. (Sorry, not going to tell you what THIS is – you’ll just have to read and decide for yourself.)
The story has a habit of briefly folding back into digression, thereby slowing the pace and causing the story to drag in parts. Though, to take with one hand and give back with the other, on the whole it has to be said that almost all of the detail the author provides ends up having some significance in the broader story. Even at 29 chapters, there is very little wasted writing here.
The detail on diabetes gets to be a bit overlong. While having such detail draws the reader more deeply into what Dean faces, it also tends to bewilder. At some points, frankly, eyes will glaze over and a bit more editing here for the general reader would have been nice. That said, the author must either have diabetes or know someone who does, because everything she writes on both its physical and psychological dimensions seems bang on and very convincing.
There is also a bit of “disaster fatigue” here. Dean seems barely able to pull his head above the parapet when something else awful happens to him or someone he cares about. Really, if the Winchester luck were really that bad, it is a wonder that they were not eaten by a Rakshasa a long time ago. For the most part, each problem is plausible, but strung together Dean starts to look a little like Mr. Magoo.
As far as the boy’s names are concerned – Samuel Francis Winchester and Johnathan Dean Winchester – the latter is a problem. Both are a problem in that, according to Jared Padalecki, the show’s writers have not assigned either boy a middle name, so the potential exists that at some future date, this bit of WPA might be contradicted. More important though, while naming Dean after his father would seem in keeping with what John and Mary might have done, as an exercise for the reader (and viewer) it causes a slight headache. The reader must constantly stop to remind himself just who it is the author is referring to. While this is kept to a minimum – Dean is usually simply called Dean – it is still distracting. It would have been better to keep Dean AS Dean and not as a middle name. (May I suggest, per another piece of fan fiction – Dean Scott Winchester? )
Finally, one bit of the mythology that the writer may have made a mistake on regards Dean’s neck chain. In WPA, the amulet on the chain is given to Dean by Bobby to cure him. However, as we know from “A Supernatural Christmas,” the chain was a gift from Sam – with no supernatural attributes. In fairness, the author does not make clear if the amulet in the story is the same one that viewers see Dean wearing on the show. However, if that was the intention, it is a break with the mythology and many readers who are fans of the show may object. That said, it is not certain and as the author has promised a sequel to WPA, perhaps the matter will be clarified in the future.
In the end, WPA ends on a poignant and sad note. It is a note we saw in “What is and What Must Never Be,” but is more painful because, unlike the Jin’s induced fantasy, this is a “true” story, and the pain of all is palpable. The dark clouds of the future hang over WPA and one becomes wistful. This is helped by the author’s skilful handling of language. She knows how to write a scene and to create powerful emotions and it is a safe assumption that many a reader will find tears welling up in their eyes if not rolling down their cheeks.
The author of WPA has created a story that compares not unfavorably to R.F. Delderfield’s “To Serve Them All My Days,” and it is a stunning accomplishment. That is high praise and it is every ounce deserved. From inside jokes – Dean asking his brother, “Are you psychic or something?” - to heart rending emotion – Dean finally breaking down in his father’s arms – the author of WPA has scarcely put a foot wrong. To say no more, WPA is a long read, but it is worth every minute.
P.S. To the author: I saw all of your various pleas for a review and I ached to respond. However, I hope that you will not mind that I waited till the story was completed. The ease with which a writer can lose his way is so great that it is a hazard to write an early review. That you kept up such a high standard from start to finish is a real tribute to your talent and skill and I hope you will consider writing professionally. You are THAT good!