Raising Wrecker by Summer Wood

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With names carrying such weight it’s really hard to see any positive connotations that a child labelled Wrecker – as the child at the heart of this novel is – could enjoy.

Trying to think of a British equivalent of Wrecker I came up with Smasher, but that conjured up Dennis the Menace imagery or jolly, Blytonesque speak (‘smashing’) rather than a bulldozing, destructive force.

I concluded that you’d have to name a kid Thug or Vandal to inflict the same damage this side of the pond.

Author Summer Wood lives with her family in near Albuquerque and has been rooted in New Mexico for 20 years where she teaches writing at the University.

Following her acclaimed novel, Arroyo (Chronicle, 2001) the mostly self-taught writer has continued to garner various awards, receiving special recognition from the Room of Her Own Foundation with the Gift of Freedom Award and $50,000 grant for her work on Raising Wrecker.

If you had three boys of your own under your belt about to turn teen you’d either have to be insane to contemplate upping the quota of children to adults in your home, or just a very, very giving person indeed.

This is exactly what Wood did – taking on four brothers ranging from 8 months to 4 years old, and for this you feel big respect is due even before turning the first page of this tale set in the “rain-soaked western reaches of Humboldt County on the north California coast.

Yes, it’s the late 60s and a good decade since lanky Len and wife Meg pitched in this verdant paradise. You can smell the sawdust in the breeze; almost hear Mama Cass on the airwaves as Summer’s narrative affords us a glimpse of the hippy commune, Bow Farm, where they rub alongside tree planter and activist, Johnny Appleseed.

We meet Ruth who binds the homestead together, Willow who lives in a cupcake-shaped yurt and is a talented weaver, and Melody, one of the original settlers on the 40-acre farm where a lot of the book is set.

Disparate characters united in a desire to live the simpler but no less easy life, and all forming the backdrop for the tale of a boy born to a woman called Lisa Fay in San Francisco in 1962. Let’s just say that she never won any certificates for safeguarding…

Wrecker’s book jacket put me off a little because it reminded me so much of books packaged in a similar way with little of substance to offer. This one is different; clearly written from lived experience.

It is an uplifting tale of how the arrival of something unsought can transform the lives of many, and raises questions around the issue of whether damage inflicted at such an impressionable and important age can ever be reversed. It tackles abandonment, irresponsibility and asks – just what is the best environment in which to raise a happy child?

Without sounding like a corny, American film voiceover, the stocky and “ferocious” blond 3-year-old Wrecker may well steal your heart as you shadow him over two decades in our author’s great un-wrecking.

Raising Wrecker is out now from Bloomsbury in paperback from Foyles, Amazon or your local bookshop priced at £7.99, or for Kindle priced at £4.63.

Rating: 4/5

Recommended for: To quote the book trailer – “anyone who has ever raised a son – or loved someone else’s” and to which I would add: and for anyone who has ever raised a daughter or dreamed of raising a child of either sex.

Other recommended reading: For more on growing up in an idiosyncratic family try All About Lulu by Jonathan Evison or, for another story of adoption, try Digging to America by Anne Tyler.

Rebecca Smeaton