Book Talk: ANCHOR AND FLARES: A MEMOIR OF MOTHERHOOD, HOPE, AND SERVICE by Kate Braestrup

Little, Brown and Company (July 14, 2015), Hardcover (ISBN 0316373788 / 9780316373784)
Nonfiction: memoir, 336 pages

Shelf Awareness for Readers provided me with a publisher-furnished galley to facilitate the review, but it was not submitted, published, or compensated by them because it was not completed by deadline.

Book review ANCHOR AND FLARES: A MEMOIR Kate Braestrup
Kate Braestrup’s Anchor and Flares is subtitled “A Memoir of Motherhood, Hope, and Service.” I’d suggest that “hope” and “service” are essential components of motherhood, and while Braestrup certainly explores both themes within that context, all three concepts are braided together in this frank and warm-hearted memoir.

Braestrup, an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, is a chaplain for the Maine Warden Service—it’s a job description that strikes me as a textbook example of “service.” Her responsibilities include offering support to all involved in search-and-rescue missions: the searchers and the searched-for, as well as their families. The months-long search for a probable drowning victim is one of the book’s central threads, as Braestrup draws connections between the lost young man and her eldest son, Zach, who stunned the family by enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps right out of high school.

Zach’s late father was a Maine state trooper, and his grandfather was also a Marine; his mother may be somewhat dismayed by his decision, but she can’t deny that he’s continuing a family tradition of service in civil and military defense. At the time Zach joined the Marines, the likelihood that he would be deployed to either Iraq or Afghanistan was very high—the Marines were on the front lines in both places. Any mother would be terrified for her child under those circumstances—and Braestrup is. But the terror is mingled with anger at her son’s decision to put himself in danger, as well as pride that he chose to follow the path of his beloved grandfather.

Hope is one way to cope with the terror–to balance it out and rein it in. The hope that Braestrup relies on isn’t a blind faith; faith is part of it, but it’s clear-eyed, and it coexists with experience and wisely tempered optimism. This is hope as something distinct from “hopefulness,” and I could see it as a sustaining mindset for Kate, widowed young with four children to raise on her own.

Braestrup is half of a relationship that’s been described as the triumph of hope over experience: a second marriage, complete with the formation of a blended family. Zach is the eldest of the six children she and her husband Simon share, but all of them are teens or entering adulthood, which means the functions of parenthood are frequently in flux. Many motherhood memoirs–thousands, if you count mom blogs–are drawn from experiences raising young children, but children don’t stay young. As the mother and stepmother of three older children, Braestrup’s reflections on motherhood as the activity of raising is winding down resonated strongly with me. The memoir includes several letters she’s written to her kids on various occasions, and the one to her stepchildren as she prepared to marry their father–“I don’t promise to love you, but I do promise to help your father be the best he can for you” (adding that she does indeed love them)–so accurately summed up my own feelings about my role as a stepmother I nearly caught my breath as I read it.

While Anchor and Flares rambles a bit structurally and doesn’t always hold its narrative threads tightly, I found Braestrup’s voice thoroughly winning–heartfelt, thoughtful, observant, sometimes wry and dryly funny. She’s written two memoirs that precede this one, Here If You Need Me and Marriage and Other Acts of Charity, and now that we’ve met, I’m thinking I’d like to read them both and know more of her story.

Rating: 3.75 of 5

“As a young mother Kate Braestrup discovered the fierce protectiveness that accompanies parenthood. In the intervening years–through mourning her husband and the joy of remarriage and a blended family-Kate has absorbed the rewards and complications of that spirit. 
“But when her eldest son joins the Marines, Kate is at a crossroads: Can she reconcile her desire to protect her children with her family’s legacy of service? Can parents balance the joy of a child’s independence with the fear of letting go? 
“As Kate examines the twinned emotions of faith and fear-inspired by the families she meets as a chaplain and by her son’s journey towards purpose and familyhood-she learns that the threats we can’t predict will rip us apart and knit us together.
From Chapter One (ARC):

“When I was a little child, I lived in hot places (Algeria, Thailand, Washington DC), but I prefer the hazards, inconveniences, and forced modesty of a cold climate, so now I live in Maine. Blizzards and black ice are far easier for me to cope with than cholera and political turmoil, and I like knitting sweaters more than sweating, so although my first (late) husband, Drew, was a Southerner, our children were raised where the climate provides, as Mainers say, two seasons: winter and July.

“Simon’s children also call Maine home. Simon is my second husband. Between us, we have a total of six (four of mine, two of his; three boys, three girls), so, one way and another, separately and together, Simon and I have done a fair amount of parenting.

“Now Zach, our eldest, and his wife, Erin, are going to have a baby. All the bliss, none of the hassle, proselytize our grandparent friends, and we are beside ourselves with anticipation and joy.”

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