This month I decided to read the—somehow under the radar—novel by A.G. Russo, Our Wild and Precious Lives.
Russo is new to me and I didn’t know what to expect, and with the book receiving little to no fanfare there was no way I could prepare myself mentally for what was about to take place (more on that later). I will say, however, that my first impression was that this was going to be mostly a history book disguised as a YA novel. But the book ends up in a far different and better place, with the bonus of educating me about a time in our history from a perspective that wasn’t my history teacher’s lecture. As the book went on I grew especially attached to Melly, the main character, feeling like I needed to jump into the pages and save the day when she was in trouble. But be advised that this didn’t happen to me until about half way through, so stick with it! The book definitely takes a sharp turn towards amazingness near the end.
The story opens in 1960 and the McCarron family is on a plane to Germany. The father, Sergeant Major Jim McCarron has orders to report to Wertheim in West Germany. Sergeant Major is a war hero and veteran of WWII and the Korean War, and he’s brought his battle scars home with him, both emotional and physical. Even when he’s off-duty Jim is always at war with himself and others, barking at his family like they’re part of his platoon. He drinks night after night to ease the pain, but that doesn’t stop him from beating his son Tom for almost no reason and constantly degrading his wife Lina, and their daughter Melly. He’s such a malicious and scary character that I was actually surprised by the level of complexity that’s revealed at the end of the book, when it becomes clear he actually might have a heart, like the Grinch.
Melly’s favorite artist is the French painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. She says he’s her favorite because there’s joy in his paintings despite his circumstance, and I feel like that’s kind of what this book is about. It’s about a group of friends, all army brats, responding to adversity and heartbreaking hardship in a super touching and refreshingly ordinary way. They’re trying to have a life while their parents, the army, and the state of the world is constantly demolishing everything they know.
Melly is tough, speaks her mind and is quite sassy if I do say so myself. She does this in spite of the fact that her mother, Lina, insists on the opposite and adopts a strategy of appeasement with the Sergeant Major in order to keep the peace at home. Melly’s brother Tom, like Lina, does everything he can to avoid confrontation. It’s clear that Melly sort of gets how dysfunctional her family life is and has a thick skin in order to cope, but somehow still maintains a strong sense of self. Melly questions everything, sort of in the sense of wanting to seek a greater truth than just what is presented to her. That’s why I love her. She’s determined to experience the joy and happiness she feels she deserves, despite her circumstances.
There are so many levels to this book, and the story is incredible. But what is important to know is that it starts off kind of slow and there’s a lot of time spent setting up Jim’s character (like all of chapter twelve which I enjoyed but could live without), when I feel like the beyond-Notebook-sadness-level ending could have used more ink. Speaking of the end, I cried for probably half an hour after I finished this book. I didn’t see the end coming at all and all of the relationships and interactions that seemed pointless earlier on really came full circle and took me on a seriously emotional rollercoaster. This is one of those books that someone tries to tell you about, fails, gives up, and then says trust me just read it. So that’s what I’m saying to you, trust me just read it!
~ Charlotte — Book Chameleon
For purchase below.