Book of the week: A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother by Janny Scott

Janny Scott’s “perceptive” biography uncovers a different person from the one voters came to know during the presidential campaign.

(Riverhead, $27)

Barack Obama’s mother wasn’t exactly the character we heard about when her son ran for president, said Ian Buruma in The New York Review of Books. Yes, Stanley Ann Dunham was “a white woman from Kansas” who married a black Kenyan at 18 and who died at 52 of cancer after being denied health benefits. But as Janny Scott’s “perceptive” biography shows, stump-speech phrases can conceal more than they reveal. A child of peripatetic parents who cribbed her unusual first name from a Bette Davis character, this heartland native lived in Kansas only briefly before the family moved on. By the time she enrolled at the University of Hawaii, she was already an adventurer, said Mary Elizabeth Williams in To classmates, she was no doubt “the girl who ran away”—the type who “eternally fascinates everyone she left behind.”

Scott tries her best not to let Dunham’s story get overshadowed by the eventual presence of her son, said Catherine Lutz in The New York Times. And there’s good material to work with: Dunham eventually made a mark in the field of global development as an early promoter of microfinancing. Her love life, meanwhile, was “intense, episodic, and sometimes rocky,” beginning with her marriage to Barack Obama Sr. Pregnant at 17, when she began going by Ann Dunham, she was divorced and on her own again three years later. By 25, she had followed her second husband, Lolo Soetoro, to his native Indonesia, where she then labored for many years on a Ph.D. dissertation about village blacksmithing. The Dunham we come to know there remains for the rest of her life “a heartfelt idealist” and “a free but disorganized spirit.”

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But this biography feels oddly “incomplete,” said David L. Ulin in the Los Angeles Times. Despite the many interviews Scott conducted, including with the president, Dunham remains a shadowy figure. “Even among friends, she didn’t reveal herself” fully, and because her life was not lived on a public stage, Scott is left piecing together mere fragments. While the passages about Dunham’s microfinancing ideas are interesting, her greatest legacy may be the family she created—one that’s granted the president a half Indonesian half sister, various Kenyan half siblings, and a Chinese-Canadian brother-in-law. It’s a “different kind of American family” than 1942 Kansas knew, and “it took a substantial act of imagination to bring it into being.”

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