Renee Riva's Saving Sailor is the adventure of 10-year-old A. J. Degulio and her dog Sailor. The story opens in the year 1968, and we find A. J.'s family spending the summer at their camp house on Indian lake. A. J.'s dad is a park ranger for the park district that surrounds the lake. Her mom is a full-time, stay-at-home mom for A. J. and her four siblings. Being a traditional Italian Catholic family, the story just would not be complete without the eccentricity of A. J.'s grandmother, who lives with them, and the relatives who come to visit.
A. J.'s quirkiness and antics definitely keep the story moving along and keep one chuckling throughout the book. The laughter that bubbles up inside your chest, however, isn't based on malicious practical jokes or hurtful comments as so much of our media uses to bring about this response. Riva does an exceptional job of allowing us to get inside A. J.'s heart and mind with utter frankness. My laughter was based on identification. Identification with the realities of growing up in a family with siblings that would war with you over the silliest of squabbles and the next minute be defending you to the ends of the earth before public ridicule or bullying. Identification with how at 10 years old, one's family can be your most cherished possession and at the same time your greatest embarrassment. It is the reader's ability to relate to the main character, whether you are a pre-teen or teenage girl or an adult, that makes this novel great.
One of Angelina Juliana's greatest quirks is her love for speaking with a Southern accent. A. J. does not just slip this accent in here and there, but she makes it a twenty-four-hour, seven-day-a-week part of her life. This absolutely drives her mother crazy. However, it is the wonderful lead-in to A. J.'s encounter with the grandson of their neighbor who comes to visit. Danny is a Southern boy through and through. A. J. and Danny hit it off right away and become soul mates and best buddies. They love the same things, not the least of which is Sailor. These two young people are still young enough and still live in an era when two young people can develop a great friendship without having to feel pushed into the world of dating and a more physical love. There is a purity and naivety to their attraction for one another as simply best friends. No hints of puppy love? Well maybe a few, but it is encapsulated in a world of Cinderella like wonderment and the love for family.
The most identifying characteristic of the Degulio family aside from its closeness is its association with being Roman Catholic. Danny's family is just as Southern Baptist as A. J.'s is Catholic. There are strong religious convictions in both of these denominations and faiths. Unfortunately, in spite of all the teachings in our society on tolerance and compassion, so many times these two denominations use their faith as a divisive sword. I truly loved this book, because it showed the common bonds we all have in loving and seeking after God while not sacrificing our religious convictions. There was no animosity between these two families because religious lines had been drawn. In all actuality, it was the true love of God that brought these two families together as Danny's family is struck by crisis in the form of infidelity and brokenness.
As the story comes to an end, we find the Degulio family making a move to Italy. A. J. is faced with the challenge of learning to say good-bye--saying good-bye to Danny, who will be staying with his grandfather on Indian Lake, and good-bye to Sailor, who will not be able to make the trip with the rest of the family. It is not easy, but A. J. rises to the challenge and the story closes with these words: "Me, I'm willing to go wherever the wind wants to take me. That might sound kind of funny after seein' where the winds have taken me this summer. But it's not the wind I have come to trust. I trust in the One that sends the wind."
For more of Angelina Juliana's antics and adventures, follow her and her family to Italy in Riva's sequel, Taking