A Singular Woman
The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother
By Janny Scott
Riverhead Books, 376 pages, $31
BARACK Obama's mother didn't live to see her son become president.
She died of cancer in 1995 at age 52, "never knowing who or what he would become."
Sad. Sadder still when you consider his attestation to the pivotal role she played in grooming him for the station he now occupies. Obama called her "the single constant in my life."
Former New York Times reporter Janny Scott goes further still in her hit-and-miss biography of Stanley Ann Dunham.
Dunham, she writes, always "believed her son in particular had the potential to be great." She "raised him to be, as he has put it jokingly, a combination of Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi and Harry Belafonte."
Even Dunham's first name, normally reserved for men, marked her as different. Yet her singularity only started there.
She was a white American woman from Kansas, writes Scott, "who married an African at a time when nearly two dozen states still had laws against interracial marriage; who, at 24, moved to Jakarta with her son in the waning days of an anti-Communist bloodbath in which hundreds of thousands of Indonesians were slaughtered; who lived more than half her adult life in a place barely known to most Americans, in the country with the largest Muslim population in the world; who spent years working in villages where a lone western woman was a rarity; who immersed herself in the study of blacksmithing, a craft long practiced exclusively by men; who, as a working and mostly single mother, brought up two biracial children."
Dunham never found success in marriage. Her two unions were either of short duration or short cohabitation, or both.
Her marriage to Barack Obama's Kenyan-born father as a 17-year-old university student -- compelled by an unplanned pregnancy -- lasted less than three years.
They married in February 1961, and the future president was born in Hawaii six months later, but they'd separated by the time he was two.
In 1966, Dunham married Loelo Soetro, an Indonesian student attending the University of Hawaii, and a year later they moved to Indonesia.
At age 10, due to her concerns about the quality of her son's education, Obama was sent back to Hawaii to live with Dunham's parents.
Her marriage to Soetro lasted 18 years, but was de facto over early on. They remained married only because neither could be bothered to commit the time or energy to sever the legal relationship.
She never experienced, in the words of her daughter (and Obama's half-sister) Maya Soetro, what you "would expect a marriage to be -- a sort of daily negotiation and conversation and affection and that sort of thing."
Much of the middle third of the book has a filler feel to it. Its focus is less Dunham than the island of Java, where she lived, off and on, for almost three decades.
Scott's lengthy distillations of academic theory and practice sometimes obscure her portrait of what was an unorthodox life.
She tells you far more about the anthropological minutiae of rural Indonesian indigenous crafts and blacksmithing, mixed with the politics and finances of Third World developmental consulting, than you'd ever want to know.
At base, it's an interesting life story, and frequently well rendered.
But less social science -- methodology, research, projects, funding -- and more Obama's mom would have made a better bio.
Douglas J. Johnston is a Winnipeg lawyer and writer.