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A Remarkable Mother (book review)

May 11, 2008

Memorable moms: Miss Lillian’s well-lived life

A Remarkable Mother
by Jimmy Carter
Simon & Schuster, 209 pp., $22.95
reviewed by Elizabeth Willse for the Star-Ledger
May 11, 2008
537 words

Former President Jimmy Carter’s memoir/biography of his mother is aptly titled, for he certainly presents Lillian Gordy Carter as both a remarkable mother and a remarkable woman. It also is an engaging volume with a keen sense of American history as well as family warmth, set out in charming and readable prose.

Lillian’s story spans almost the entire 20th century, from her girlhood in rural Georgia through a nursing career that continued as she raised her children. But her later years are perhaps the most intriguing; she was nearly 70 when she volunteered with the Peace Corps in India. Later, during her son’s presidential term, she assumed a unique diplomatic role.

Her sharp wit and determined individuality leap from the pages, as her son recounts the stories that add up to a well-lived life.

Lillian Gordy Carter was a working mother decades before the description came into vogue. The former president describes his mother’s strong belief in her work that taught him and his siblings a sense of self-sufficient responsibility during her long hospital shifts. Her nursing career provides him with the background to write about concerns of social justice without sounding preachy.

Many diseases that are now preventable or treatable were previously deadly, and those borne by vermin were of particular concern to Lillian. She “ignored the pervasive restraints of racial segregation,” treating all patients equally in her segregated Southern town. Her son credits her nursing work with inspiring his own contributions to public health and charity.

In her late 60s, Lillian volunteered for the Peace Corps, working in Vikhroli, India, distributing birth control pamphlets and advice on vasectomies. After struggling with her study of Hindi, she figured out a way to create a dialogue presenting the concepts she wanted to translate — as a puppet show. She also pursued the nursing work she loved in a local clinic.

At Carter’s inauguration, the press asked Lillian whether she was proud of her son. “Which one?” she famously retorted.

The later chapters, detailing Lillian’s role in her son’s presidential campaign, are particularly intriguing in an election year. It is hard to imagine an entire family campaigning the way the Carters did, meeting with a largely laudatory press along the way. (That, most of all, illustrates how much has changed.) Woven throughout this volume is a keen sense of history and historical context.

Since his term as the nation’s 39th president, Jimmy Carter has written a number of books, with topics ranging from faith to public policy to social justice to the only work of fiction ever penned by a U.S. president. His easygoing, conversational prose is especially appropriate in this memoir, lending coziness and warmth to his reminiscences. His writing style and conviction convey his message of social justice and the strength of his family’s faith without sanctimony or preachiness.

What makes this volume shine, though, is his mother’s own voice, whether in her letters home from India or in excerpts from the interviews she gave throughout her son’s political career. Throughout her life, Lillian Gordy Carter was generous, outspoken, charming and fiercely independent. This book is a testament to a strong family and the thoughtful, adventurous life of a woman who was, inarguably, a remarkable mother.

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