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Dave Wood's Book Report, May 21, 2008

I opened "A Remarkable Mother," by Jimmy Carter (Simon & Schuster, $22.95) with some trepidation. Ex-presidents don't usually make great writers, unless you count U.S. Grant and Teddy Roosevelt.

Nixon made too many excuses, Bill Clinton was way too windy. You get the drift.

But "A Remarkable Mother," Carter's 20th book, was promisingly brief (only 222 pages) and although Carter's presidency was marked with all manner of trouble, I believe his post-presidential career has been sterling, so I dove in.

Gosh, but it's a nice book about his rather eccentric, headline-grabbing mother, Miss Lillian!

Carter's writing style is unadorned, straightforward and quite charming. The little book begins with his ancestors and quickly settles on Lillian and her husband, Earl Carter, their courtship and marriage and the wisdom Jimmy Carter shows in having interviewed his mother before she died and carefully writing down what she said -- even when she warned him not to write it down.

One day she told Carter that until she was in her 20s she never got in a carriage or auto unless accompanied by a chaperone. "Everything I knew [about sex]" she told her son, I learned from that chaperone."

Carter also profiles his father, Earl, a substantial Georgia citizen who was something of a dandy and who played poker every Friday night whether Lillian liked it or not.

His siblings also enter the picture. Carter has very good things to say about his eccentric brother, Billy, opining that despite his over consumption of alcohol, was the smartest member of the family, read voraciously and helped the Carter family run their farm-supply business in Plains:

"When I was campaigning for president, [Billy was] accused of being eccentric, he replied [to the press] 'I've got one sister who spends all her time on a motorcycle, another who is a Holy Roly preacher, a mother who was in the Peace Corps when she was 70-years-old, and my brother thinks he's going to be president of the United States. Which one of our family do you think is normal?'"

The book is full of surprises, at least to me. The Carters were a very substantial family in Plains, but didn't have running water in the house. Earl and Lillian never took vacations when they knew there was a Baptist revival scheduled.

But their son admits that every once in awhile when his parents threw a party for the rich folks in town at the family cottage, the next morning he and the hired man had to take a team of mules out and pull one of the guest's cars out of the lake." "The brakes didn't hold" was always his father's excuse.

Although Earl and Lillian Carter had very brief educations, they encouraged their kids to read. They could even get out of chores if they were reading, Carter remembers. And they were even allowed to read through meals at the dinner table -- except on Sundays.

Carter's tribute to his mother is a touching book and nowhere is it more touching than when he recalls his mother's attitudes toward race, which was way out of step with his father's and most people in Plains.

Lillian greeted local blacks at her front door, while her husband absented himself from the entire procedure.

And even when the Braves moved to Atlanta, Lillian stuck it out as a Dodgers fan she and Earl saw Jackie Robinson play his first major league game at Ebbetts field.

When Lillian Carter died, the family found an entire Dodgers uniform in her closet, signed by the entire Dodger team.

On the regional front this week there's "My Heart it is Delicious," by Biloine W. Young (Afton Historical Society Press, $35), a beautiful coffee table book that tells the story of the American Refugee Committee of Minneapolis, which was begun in 1979 to send a small group of medical people to the Thai-Cambodian border to tend the sick and starving refugees. That organization has grown and still exists to serve the burgeoning foreign populations in Minnesota.

"A Boy Named Beckoning," adapted and illustrated by Gina Capaldi (CarolRhoda Books, 16.95) is the moving story of Dr. Carlos Montezuma, a Native American who was sold into slavery, but ended up as a medical doctor and spokesman for his people.

Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. E-mail him at