Summer Wood is my guest this week. Summer is the author of Raising Wrecker, a contemporary novel that won a WILLA Literary Award this year, and writes about how this book came about.
by Summer Wood
As a reader and a writer, I love stories that challenge my ordinary perception. As a mother, on the other hand, I find I’m perfectly okay with the status quo. I don’t need surprise or revelation in that job description. I like it when things go smoothly. I don’t like to have my feathers ruffled.
Except, of course (Mothers? Can you confirm this for me?) – they never do go completely smoothly, do they?
Raising Wrecker came about because of an unexpected bump in my personal motherhood curve. And even though my writing rarely follows the contours of my life, the experience of being a foster parent was so emotionally acute that I turned to fiction to see my way through to a clearer understanding.
We entered the experience innocently enough. We had trained to become emergency foster care parents, thinking that if a local kid needed someplace to stay briefly while the family was in trouble, we could harbor him or her for a weekend or so. With our three sons and their friends, our place was overrun with kids, anyway. The screen door kept slamming as one neighbor child or another came or went. What was one more for a couple of days?
One, maybe; but the first call we got was for four small brothers who needed a family to stay with. Their parents were both battling drug problems, in trouble with the law, and the authorities had removed the kids upon confirmation of neglect. Sally, the social worker, said that if we couldn’t take these boys – aged 4, 3, 2, and not-quite-1 – they’d be split up and sent to different homes.
You want us to take them for the weekend?
Indefinitely, she said, and coughed politely into her hand.
We thought hard. We consulted our sons. And then we said yes, and for nearly two winter months, these small boys – who came to us with pneumonia, an amazing roster of aberrant behaviors, a black trash bag of shorts, t-shirts, and ill-fitting sneakers, and the most cherubic little faces – lived in our home and rapidly took up residence in our hearts.
It’s a long story, the saga of their journey back and forth, into and out of their parents’ custody. We became friends of the family, kind of informal kin to the boys. We were on hand to help when a fifth child was born with medical complications. We rooted for the parents, celebrated with them, wept with them, and when, at last, the whole house of cards came tumbling down, we felt our hearts break for them as their parental rights were terminated and the boys were adopted out to separate families.
I didn’t write this novel in conscious response to having fostered those children. As any novel will, it grew out of a rank stew of personal experience, literary experiment, political inquiry, and meandering imagination – with a good dose of love, whimsy, fear, humor, and warped psychological obsession thrown in. This imaginary child, Wrecker, arrived in a public
playground one June afternoon in 1965, and I wanted to know what would happen to him. I wanted to know his mother, and how she lost him, and who would come to love and raise him, and what kind of man he would turn out to be.
Writing his mothers into being – both the one who gave him his start, and the one into whose arms he fell – meant coming to terms with the power of parents. It meant coming up hard against the truth that no parent, not one of us, is perfect. It meant facing head-on the fact that the mistakes we make can have grave consequences. It meant learning forgiveness as a kind of survival strategy.
I’ve come to believe that it is a radical expression of love to parent any child. And that there’s no right way to do it. It can only be done by trial and error, and error, and error, and trying again. And, yes; there will be unexpected bumps. There will be ruffled feathers.
And writing Wrecker himself? Writing Wrecker into being was a way for me to believe again in the possibilities open to children. I needed to reconnect with the hope that led us to step forward and say: yes. With whatever we can offer, for as long as we can, we’ll welcome these children into our lives.
It was an honor to have the chance to know those boys and their parents. And the best way I knew to pay back that honor was to bring this other boy, Wrecker, into the world, and let him muscle his way, with grace and love and a good share of noise, into his future.