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Know the West

Good-enough mothers: A review of Wrecker


Summer Wood
304 pages, hardcover: $20.
Bloomsbury USA, 2011.

In her second novel, Wrecker, New Mexico author Summer Wood draws on her personal experience as a foster parent. Wrecker is a bruiser of a boy who "seemed to need to feel his body collide with the physical world to know he existed." He's born and mostly raised outdoors in a story that is less about him than about the adults attempting to guide this troubled child through the wilderness of life.

Single mother Lisa Fay gives birth to Wrecker in a San Francisco playground in 1965. Three years later, she's imprisoned, and the boy is sent to his uncle in the California backcountry. Uncle Len, his body "a compact knot from thirty years of working the woods," already has his hands full with an invalid wife. His neighbors, who pursue an alternative lifestyle on a nearby farm, pitch in to help raise a child they didn't ask for but cannot turn away.

Wrecker especially bonds with Melody, who fears losing him when his mother is eligible for parole in 15 years. "Whatever it was his mother had done ... it wasn't bad enough to turn her son. Even at this distance, his heart tracked her like a plant hungry for light."

The wildness of the surrounding landscape is beautifully rendered and reflects the rambling nature of Wrecker's nontraditional parenting. Wood, the recipient of a $50,000 award from the A Room of Her Own Foundation, raises important issues, challenging our definition of what makes a family and, even more, what it means to be a mother. Melody rues that "there was no reliable scale that let her know whether she was doing a decent job or screwing him up royally" -- apparently unaware that she'd be doing the same even if Wrecker were her biological son. Both birth mother and foster mother fear they've failed the child, and dread the day of reckoning.

Of the two male characters influencing Wrecker, one grows trees while the other chops them down, but both instill in him the value of physical labor. This quiet and sensitive novel inspires nostalgia for the days when a boy could spend his youth running wild in the woods, instead of passively plugged into technology. And it reminds us of what a difference it makes when adults truly open their hearts to a child who needs to be loved.