A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother by Janny Scott.
Riverhead Books, Penguin Group, New York, 2011, my edition 2012.
Biography, 386 pages.
A biography of Barack Obama’s mother.
Barack Obama led a unique and fascinating life long before he ever went into politics. A great deal has been made of his father, including his now famous first book, Dreams from My Father, but much less has been said about his mother, a white woman from Kansas. After Barack’s father returned to Kenya, she married a man named Lolo and moved to Indonesia, where Maya was born. Eventually they split up too, and Barack then lived with his grandparents.
There might be other details depending on which book you’re reading, but little insight into who she was or why she made the choices she did, although those choices were so formative for a man so many have opinions about. Janny Scott was different – she saw Stanley Ann Dunham* from the beginning and wanted to know what her life was like.
The result is this fascinating biography which will probably be little read and even less appreciated. Yet the story of Dunham’s life holds merit alone, even though it probably never would have been written without her famous son’s accomplishments drawing intense public scrutiny to their family. She was surprisingly countercultural yet drew from certain deeply conservative attitudes.
Obama and Maya were both interviewed, alongside a host of more distant relatives and others who knew Dunham for a space of time through various jobs, schools, and social circles. Dunham had passed by the time this book was even an idea, but her mother Madelyn had promised to give interviews after the presidential election. Sadly, she passed away before those discussions could occur.
Scott understandably relies on additional figures to flesh out the story she couldn’t get. None of the three Dunhams seem to have left extensive notes until Stanley Ann Dunham was doing her Ph.D research, and even that is not particularly personal. The story suffers from the lack of these voices, especially in the time period after her parents had married and left Kansas, but before they settled down in Hawaii. Even a good friend at the Seattle high school Dunham attended passed away shortly after Scott tracked him down.
Early chapters are weaker due to the lack of resources, but I’m impressed by Scott’s ability to weave the little bits together into a readable narrative. Not only did I learn about Dunham, this also filled in some gaps about her children.
For readers already familiar with Barack Obama’s general life story though, this book takes off when Dunham does her pioneering microfinance work. In fact, she is just starting to take her work international when the cancer she eventually died from quickly overtakes her. It’s only then that her attitude toward settled life seems to change as well.
After reading this, I was confused by why exactly I found it so compelling. If she hadn’t birthed a future president, Dunham’s life would not have driven a biography. She traveled and worked internationally but so have other small-town white women. It took a chat with another reader to figure it out – while never quite conforming, Dunham immersed herself in Indonesian culture fully in a way few white people do.
Those white people who do immerse deeply into a non-white culture are usually doing so for clear reason. Most often the stories we see are of missionaries, or less frequently romance, or occasionally career. Dunham was not motivated by the first, and not completely swayed by the others either. While her marriage brought her to Indonesia and she developed a career there after divorce, she didn’t rely entirely on either for motivation. Her choices are so opposite to the dominant narrative here in the USA that it’s almost difficult to conceive.
One does wonder why Dunham went to Indonesia and formed such lasting attachment there after refusing to join Barack’s father in Kenya. Nonetheless, her immersion and attachment to Indonesian culture is uniquely compelling.
Recommended, but probably has a limited audience. If you’re interested in the Obama family, Indonesia and/or Hawaii, microfinance, or cross cultural parenting then this might work for you. This is an adult book, so there are mentions of adult topics (objectification, racial taunting, abandonment, cancer, poverty, extramarital relationships, and so on).
*Obama’s mother was born Stanley Ann Dunham but went by a wide variety of names throughout her life, from different variations on her birth name, to using the last names of her husbands at points, and being called by various titles. Her name changes are documented throughout the book, but for simplicity in this review, I’ve decided to stick with her original last name here.