Book review: ‘Rebel Mother’

Aug 14, 2017 by

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The Mennonite layer of Peter Andreas’ unconventional childhood story is at first glance rather thin. More than anything, Rebel Mother is a story of the 1960s and 1970s, when American culture was impacted by dramatic political and social changes that redrew its landscape permanently.

"Rebel Mother"

“Rebel Mother”

Peter was born into a marriage formed in 1951 by two Bethel College students in south central Kansas, a father with “hardwired 1950s sensibilities” and a mother who increasingly questioned the values and propriety of her upbringing. Like so many women of her generation, Carol would lose the nipped-in waist and coiffed hair of a “proper and conventional appearance” for a “cool and casual look” of straight hair, jeans and sandals. Like others of her time, she critiqued sexism and patriarchy.

But she pursued her ideas to radical conclusions, rejecting monogamy and the nuclear family as well as consumerism, capitalism and conformity to anything conventional. She became a Marxist revolutionary, traveling both geographically and intellectually in pursuit of a pure and idealistic life.

Andreas’ first memory was his father abruptly picking him up from nursery school to thwart his mother’s plan to take him with her as she left his father. Carol was determined to raise Peter with her revolutionary imprint. Peter’s father, Carl, believed stability was the best for a young boy.

Before the divorce was final, Carol took Peter and his two brothers across state lines, defying a court order and then fleeing to Ecuador, Chile, Argentina and Peru. When the divorce was final and Carl was granted legal custody of Peter, Carol kidnapped him, again fleeing the country. Carl would eventually stop fighting for Peter’s physical custody, in a sort of King Solomon-esque retreat.

The power of a good memoir is authenticity, the ability to convince the readers this is really happening in people’s lives. In a melodramatic family story, Andreas keeps our attention with the clear and consistent voice of a growing child.

Here is a young boy’s poignant perspective of his parents’ arguments, his mother’s restlessness, the dogs who were his pets, and the food and homes and roommates that change with each move. Through Peter’s eyes, we see an exasperating and often self-absorbed but charismatic mother.

He is also a child of divorce, who once told a judge he wanted to live with both parents. You will find yourself rooting for the societal changes that now favor shared custody and co-parenting.

Andreas says he wrote this book after finding a trove of diaries and journals written by his mother after she died in 2004. He relies heavily on her perspective, and their relationship is his primary subject.

For Peter’s mother, Mennonites were the staid something she rebelled against. “No longer a polite and proper Mennonite teenager, by her late thirties my mother had learned to thrive on conflict and action,” writes Andreas. Neither Carol nor her son recognizes her passion for social justice and fairness as similar to Mennonite values of peacemaking, community-building and global humanitarianism. Carol was early for her time, and definitely extreme in her interpretation, but certainly not the only Bethel graduate to wave a flag of radical change.

Produced by a major publisher, Rebel Mother is obviously written for a non-Mennonite audience, and Andreas’ introductory description of what “Mennonite” means is particularly flat. “As a pacifist Christian sect closely related to the Amish . . . Mennonites mostly intermarried, spent Sundays at church, and kept to themselves.”

In the same way, Peter’s portrayal of his Mennonite father as “frustratingly square and provincial” seems stereotypical and flat. Carl traveled to Cuba on a winter college break, worked on the railroad in Colorado after high school, spent four years living in Pakistan and married women who were both outspoken, attractive, youthful and very bright. Both of his wives earned Ph.D.s while married to Carl. It doesn’t add up to the “straitlaced, traditional American family man” Peter calls his father. Peter seems also to undervalue the steadfast presence Carl remained in his life, despite the family’s turmoil.

I confess my prejudice on the last point. I am acquainted with Carl Andreas, and his second wife, Rosalind. Mennonite readers may also find familiar faces, including Carol’s father, Willis Rich, longtime director of public relations at Bethel College.

Peter Andreas grew into an accomplished scholar and author. He holds a joint appointment between the department of political science and the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. He has published a number of books and scholarly articles on global issues.

Rebel Mother is a fascinating and extremely well-written account of a mother and son plunging through the politics of their time. It includes some harrowing experiences in Chile when the Allende government was forcibly overthrown by a CIA-sponsored military coup.

It is also an honest book, which is not as easy as it sounds. Peter Andreas brings us along with him as he navigates his own family’s complexities and takes on the task of all adults, making peace with your parents.

Ardie S. Goering is a Christmas tree farmer and writer living in both central Kansas and Albuquerque, N.M.

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