I was going to write a long introduction about the author Summer Wood so you would know something of her heart and her poetic touch with language, but her answers in this interview do just that. You’ll see! So let me tell you, instead, about her novel, WRECKER, set in California, where a young boy with a short fuse and a reckless nature needs a home after his mother is sent to prison. It’s a story about the aftershocks of abandonment, the hunger for connection, and the surprise in store for the untraditional family who dares to take him in.
Please welcome Summer, and if you like, you can make her book launch special by leaving her a note at the end.
Photo Credit: Miriam Berkley
I’m interested in your background as a foster parent. How did you come to taking children into your home? How are you different for it, and how did you let them go again?
Well, we were living in a small village in northern New Mexico, and we knew a lot of kids who, for one reason or another, were in and out of the foster care system. Our own three sons were not quite in their teens, and we had a little extra space. We figured that, if a kid in our area needed a home for a night or a weekend—a temporary refuge from a family crisis, or a night away from their foster family—we could offer that.
It didn’t really turn out the way we’d planned, though! Our first call came from a social worker who asked if we’d consider taking four small brothers. Indefinitely. The oldest was four. If we couldn’t take them, she said, they’d be split up and sent to different homes.
We hemmed and hawed and then we said yes, and embarked on one of the most harrowing and rewarding experiences of my life. I fell in love with them. We all did. And it wrecked our home life. Seven boys in the house, the oldest almost 13, the youngest 8 months— we weren’t prepared at all. But I guess, more than that, we weren’t prepared for the feelings, the deep bond that developed between us all. And the terrible sense that, in spite of doing everything that you can, sometimes it still is not enough.
When they left—well. We rooted for the parents. God knows we wanted them to succeed. We became friends with them and a kind of kin to the kids, and we helped out whenever they asked. But in spite of their best intentions the parents couldn’t hold it together, and the boys were adopted out to separate families.
Let go? I haven’t let go. I wrote WRECKER because I guess I can’t let go. You never really let go of the people you love, do you? You send them off, you wish them well, you let them be, but you go on carrying some part of them with you until the day you die.
One of the emotions you really explore in WRECKER is hesitance. The hesitance to trust. The hesitance to commit. What did your characters learn, and what did you learn through them, as they risked being vulnerable and being in roles they didn’t expect to play?
I don’t like getting hurt. Right? Who does? You lose people you love, it’s a terrible feeling. Why do we go in for this love thing at all, when it could backfire so badly?
For me, the touchstone character in the book—the single one I could rely on when things went south—was Ruthie. She knows everything there is to know about love and loss, and she doesn’t blink an eye before diving in to love Wrecker. She knows where the relationship is likely headed. The boy is there temporarily, and she has no claim on him. But she dives in anyway.
The rest of the characters wear their injuries front and center. They know a dangerous situation when they see one. They know it’s safer not to trust, not to get involved. But—and this is what I love about human beings—slowly, with varying degrees of hesitance, they let themselves love, anyway. They can’t help it. Even Willow, the most self-protective of the bunch, can’t help herself. And, loving, it’s one step, one action, after another toward committing.
Did I learn from this? I’m not sure. I do know this: never go to the pound unless you intend to come home with a puppy. The heart leads, the feet follow, and the head is left way back in the hinterlands trying to make sense of what just happened.
Raising someone who’s been dealt a blow but whose background is largely a mystery is a real task for his new family. What qualities do you think they had that allowed Wrecker to begin to settle in?
Well, first of all, they had the advantage of living in a magical place, out there amid the tall trees, the gorgeous wild backcountry of Humboldt County. And although Bow Farm isn’t exactly utopian—they’re too lazy for that—socially, they sure didn’t buy into the status quo. Each of them allows the others considerable privacy and latitude regarding their former lives. I think it was natural that Wrecker would be accorded that, too—that they would, more or less, take him as he was.
But, even more than that—and I’d never thought of it this way before, so thank you!—I think each of the characters has a kind of natural curiosity about Wrecker, that develops into a unique personal affinity. They aren’t sorry for him so much as they’re interested in him. They see him as one of their own: odd and damaged and unpredictable, but their boy.
So much of what makes parenting of any variety so difficult is the mighty internal-external choir of disapproval. At Bow Farm, there wasn’t anyone there to tell them they were doing it wrong. They had to make it up, by trial and error.
Well. Hardly anybody.
Wrecker’s mother has a small but crucial role in this book. I think you’ve given her the weight that a real birth mother might have in a child’s life—she’s decidedly absent, and yet very emotionally present—almost a ghost, a phantom limb in the family. What were your feelings about this mother as you were creating her?
Mixed is not the word. I loved her fiercely, and I was furious with her for failing to protect her son, and I feared for her every step of the way, and, for some reason, I could not let her catch one single break. Her life is the story of bad choices and worse luck, and she is one of the most beautiful women I think I’ve ever known. Is it fair to say that about a fictional character? It’s true, though; that’s how I feel.
I’ve been amazed to find how many readers write her off as a bad mother. I felt she was a really good mother, who, through her own actions and some terrible luck, had her son taken from her. The pain of that—just imagining it blinds me. And I stand in awe of the courage it takes to survive that.
But the great thing about fiction is how amply it accommodates different readings. I kind of love it that other people feel differently about the characters and the situations and the outcomes than I do. It reminds me that a story is a live thing, and that the author’s responsibility is to write it, not to interpret it.
I think my favorite part of your book was that none of the adults that ended up taking in Wrecker had sought out being a parent, so we’re watching them learn how to do it. We’re seeing them almost reluctantly falling in love. I want to go back to your own experience with parenting again and ask you to tell a story where you stepped outside of your comfort zone or known strengths—and how that turned out.
Oh, wow! Well, that’s still happening, all the time. Parenting is the best way I know to make a fool of yourself. Our boys have grown into men, now—gorgeous, amazing human beings—and I still say dumb things, worry too much, bug them unnecessarily, embarrass them—but they’re very generous about it all.
I can actually remember when I learned that it was okay—no, it was necessary—to apologize to them when I messed up. Just a straightforward, Look, I overreacted. Or—I shouldn’t have done that. Or—I was wrong. No big deal attached to it. And how astonished I was that they said, oh. Okay.
Just like that. No big deal.
But what a weight off my shoulders! Because, if you have to pretend you’re perfect or infallible or whatever, or you pretend that your bad behavior never happened, then you miss the chance to relate to them as you are. You prevent them from knowing you, and knowing what matters to you. They may not forgive you entirely, then or ever—and maybe they shouldn’t. But they know that you’re saying, That’s not the way the world should be. It’s not the way I intend it to be.
But you’re still their mom. And you’re still there. Flawed and funky and listening to the same bad music in the car, over and over.