Miles's Reviews > A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother

A Singular Woman by Janny Scott
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Feb 07, 12

bookshelves: reviewed
Read in December, 2011

The life of Stanley Ann Dunham would never have been described in print had she not been the mother of Barack Obama. Does her story have any larger significance, apart from being the life that formed Obama?

Janny Scott's reporting on Barack Obama's mother a few years ago in the New York Times was fascinating and enlightening about his past, and led to this book. The book is the story of a middle class woman with a wandering spirit, who spent much of her life in Indonesia, and clearly loved that place and its culture. She was no mere visitor there. She married into the place, she learned the language, and she sunk into it. She was always tied to the U.S., economically, culturally and through her parents in Hawaii, but truly she was never of the U.S. She set sail in her teens, and never really looked back.

Ann Dunham worked for the Ford Foundation among other organizations. After 20 years of work in Indonesia she completed a well-regarded Ph.D. dissertation on small scale craft manufacture and village economics. She was a woman who could operate comfortably in Indonesia and, later in life, was a respected voice in international economic development.

She was a fierce believer in her son, and worked tirelessly to assure his education. There are hints that she actually believed when he was only a teen that he might be President some day (but then, how many mothers have had that thought?), and late in her life she was aware of his political ambitions as he prepared to run for office.

Her story reminds us that Obama is the first "post-boomer" President. It was his mother, born in 1942, who was the boomer in spirit (if a little early by actual birth date), and he's already of the generation that the boomers raised, as they built their lives in the world created by and inherited from the generation of the second World War.

I wouldn't say that you need this book to understand Obama, but it provides some fascinating background about the people and world that shaped him. The book suffers from a surfeit of under-organized recollections from people that it is hard to identify (as a reader.) The early history is built from interviews and recollections and sometimes you just need to skip a page or two. But the book consistently rewards to the end, conveying a life that, like all lives, comes to take on a significance independent of the lives that she engendered. Ann Dunham is no hero, no genius, no world transforming figure. She was just an ordinary, unique, involved, thoughtful professional and political human being, and the mother of a future President. She is extraordinary in an ordinary sense. She's interesting to read about, and the hearing of her story enables us to imagine the 1950s through the 1990s of America and America abroad in East Asia from the perspective of an idealistic development worker, always with the strange foreshadowing that although neither she nor anyone in the story could really know it at the time, all this ordinary living was leading to the later public life of Barack Hussein Obama.
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