UNRAVELING A CHILD’S ANGER
ore than a decade ago, Taos author Summer Wood and Kathy Namba lived with their three ’ tween-aged sons in a small, rural Northern New Mexico village. Having trained to become emergency foster-care parents, they soon found themselves temporarily in charge of four more boys, ages 4, 3, 2, and almost 1, whose parents were struggling with drug addiction.
The experience led Wood to write her newest work of fiction, Wrecker (published by Bloomsbury USA). Born in 1965, Wrecker — so named because the character has the tendency to bulldoze the physical obstacles spread out before him while shrinking from the emotional ones — is taken from his drug-addicted mother at the age of 3 and sent to live with relatives in Humboldt County, California.
Wrecker’s new home life suddenly shifts, however, and he finds himself raised by members of Bow Farm, a hippie commune. Wrecker orbits around the fractured yet lovable boy and the unlikely group of people
This boy didn’t look forlorn, he looked
ferocious. … He was scarred and volatile
and more luminous than any celestial
body. There had to be a way to diffuse
some of his explosive anger.
— from Wrecker by Summer Wood
who assume parenting roles on his behalf. In the process, the novel explores intriguing notions of family, motherhood, and community. It may take a village to raise a child, Wood says through her elegant prose, but the villagers must have a strong capacity for love, patience, flexibility, fragility, and compassion if it is to count for anything.
In 2007, Wood, a former director of the Taos-based SOMOS Youth Mentorship Program for 12-to 18-year-old writers and a teacher in the University of New Mexico’s Taos Summer Writers’ Conference, received a $50,000 Gift of Freedom award from the nonprofit A Room of Her Own
Foundation, which allowed her to complete Wrecker with additional financial support. The book is by no means autobiographical; Wood simply felt the need to explore the dynamic of a boy searching for safe haven in the world and in his heart while coping with the emotional and circumstantial distance between himself and his birth mother.
To celebrate the launch of the book, on Friday, Feb. 18, Collected
Works Bookstore presents authors Wood and Robert Wilder ( Daddy Needs a Drink, Tales From the Teachers’ Lounge) in conversation. Wood
spoke to Pasatiempo by phone from her Taos home.
Pasatiempo: How did Humboldt County and the farm-commune concept come into play in Wrecker’s upbringing?
Summer Wood: About 20 years ago, before I moved to New Mexico, I lived in the Bay Area and thereabouts, and I used to go up to Humboldt all the time, partly because it’s such a great, beautiful dose of wild country. There’s so much similarity between Humboldt and Taos County in terms of the wildlife, and a kind of openness of the people, too. Pasa: Why did you choose to frame the story during the Vietnam War era?
Wood: I wanted to get some of that sense of San Francisco in the late ’60s, that combined air of thinking anything could happen and all rules are out the window, but at the same time, the fact that things like family, peaceful protests, and war don’t always go the way you think or hope they’re going to go. Wrecker’s mother, when she moved to San Fran — she had all of these expectations and ideas, and besides the fact that she made some bad choices, she also had some really bad luck and ended up in a bad situation. The people up in Bow Farm, the folks who take
Wrecker in, are trying to get away from society. There’s that sense of trying to create something new, not really like a Utopian impulse, but an Arcadian one. It gave me a chance as a writer to step back from what I think is true for so many parents these days: there’s so much intense pressure to be perfect, to do the presumably right thing for your kids, to be a “superparent.” Setting the novel in that time allowed me to let the characters expand in their behaviors, to be open to whatever happened to themselves and with the boy.
It must be interesting to see how readers, especially parents, react to the boy’s upbringing, first by his mother, who’s in prison and eventually wants to reconnect, and then by this sort of island of misfit hippie denizens who, for all their idiosyncrasies, manage to do a fine job of getting Wrecker a little, well, un-wrecked.
To me, Wrecker’s birth mom is a wonderful mother when the boy is an infant. She really cares for him, cherishes him. And interestingly, I get so much feedback about what a mom she is, and how she abandoned him, and so on. But she’s important to me; she’s a driving force. It’s vital that she’s almost a shadow story throughout the whole book. I didn’t want it to be, Oh, this bad mom neglects her son and gets shipped off to jail, and that’s the end of her. It’s never that simple and clean. Being a foster parent really drove it home for me: the visceral understanding that, when you lose your kid, no matter your circumstance, what that must feel like; and how you never are free of wondering what’s going on with him — or whether you will ever be able so see him again. It’s really hard to be a parent without a lot of support. If you don’t have money and social recognition, that’s a lot going against you already. If you toss in trouble with the law, regaining a lost or surrendered child becomes almost insurmountable.
As Wrecker’s past with his mother is revealed, so, too, are the memories and emotions that drive a lot of the actions of his new caretakers. They all seem to have different motives, but they’re all relatively noble, given the circumstances and Wrecker’s complex behavior. Look, it’s one thing to say you love kids, and it’s another thing to stand there and continue to show up and be present for a kid who has had horrible things happen to him and who may be manifesting that though certain behaviors. But the people who keep going back for more, who keep showing up for kids, have my deepest respect, and the story is as much about them as it is Wrecker. When I began writing the book, which, at first — right after writing I thought was going to be a familiar and rather harmless exercise, I kept asking myself, What is the most important story to tell here? I was interested in asking these characters, and myself: After Wrecker is taken from his mother, who is bold and kind enough to stack one intimate moment on top of another in the pursuit of forming a life for him? What I learned — besides the fact that writing is never a harmless exercise — and what I think the most important story turned out to be here, is that these peoples’ actions confirmed that there is no one single definitive way to love a person, and for that matter, to raise one well.