Karen Boutilier Kendall experienced the turmoil of social change on the front lines.
Kendall is the child of activist parents who devoted their lives to the struggle to build the United Farm Workers Union. Her memoir, “Berkeley to Beijing: The Journey of a Young Activist,” is the bittersweet story of a young girl struggling to understand her world, which was often chaotic and frightening, as well as inspiring and exciting.
“Friends kept saying, you should write down all of those stories,” Kendall said. “My childhood was pretty unique and I got to see a lot of history being made. I had a story I wanted to tell … my family are all storytellers and I love history and I love to hear about other people’s lives.”
Kendall’s minister father joined the Migrant Ministry as a full-time organizer for the UFW when she was six. Her mother was also heavily involved in the movement. The family moved into a UFW strike house, and for the next six years, young Kendall’s life would be defined by her parent’s political commitment.
She grew up surrounded by inspiring people like Caesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta and saw history being made, but she also saw her father beaten by a policeman at a protest rally.
While her parents were busy with their cause, Kendall assumed responsibility for her younger siblings. The family moved often, traveling on assignment for the union. Kendall’s life was so different from that of her school peers that it was difficult to make friends or fit in.
Her mother’s mental illness and frequent hospitalization also contributed to the chaotic nature of the family’s life.
Young Kendall had to be self-sufficient. She learned early to cope with an ever-changing cast of housemates and guests. She had to defend her family against teachers and fellow students who saw their lifestyle and politics as wrong and even threatening. Most families don’t have to worry about firebombs at the office or what will happen if everyone is arrested at a protest march.
Twelve-year-old Kendall’s strength of character and idealism impressed actress Shirley MacLaine when she worked with Kendall on the 1972 presidential campaign for George McGovern. When MacLaine organized an all-woman trip to Mao’s China to make a documetary film, she invited Kendall to come along.
Kendall’s month-long adventure in a China few Westerners had experienced makes for fascinating reading.
“I expected people to be unfriendly and anti-American, but that wasn’t the case at all,” Kendall remembered. “People made strong comments about the Vietnam War and about the US, but they were very welcoming.”
She was appalled by the lack of freedom in China, but also impressed with how Communism had improved many people’s lives. Kendall was especially impressed by seeing women doing traditionally male jobs, like working on the docks, which was unheard of in 1970s America.
When Kendall returned to the US, she decided to live with her aunt on a full-time basis. Although she loved her family and respected their commitment to the UFW, she wanted a different kind of life—one of security and calm acceptance.
“The message we got as kids was that there are things worth working hard for and you can do big things if you are committed. My dad embodied sacrifice,” Kendall said.
Seeing these events through the eyes of a child makes interesting reading. Kendall does a good job of portraying the experience through powerful vignettes that capture her world. Good memoirs make an era personal and real for readers in a way that a history book never can. Kendall’s eyewitness account of this important time makes compelling reading.
Karen Boutilier Kendall and fellow memoirist Stephanie Sydoriak will be the first guests at Mesa Public Library’s new series, Literary Locals at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, May 5.