Tuesday, July 5, 2011

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

On the campaign trail in March 2008 candidate Obama is quoted about his parents: “I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas.” That unconventional white woman, cultural anthropologist Stanley Ann Dunham Obama Soetoro, is the subject of Janny Scott’s unsentimental biography. Dunham is a worthy subject in her own right, not just as the mother of the current president. For a quick overview, check out this story from NPR.

From Kansas to Washington State to Hawaii to Java to New York City and more, Dunham is a true transnational. She marries and divorces a Kenyan and an Indonesian and has a child with each. She fights for an education for herself and her children. She researches cottage industries and communal life in Indonesia; her thousand-page 1992 PhD thesis is titled “Peasant Blacksmithing in Indonesia: Surviving and Thriving against all Odds”. That subtitle could work as a title for the story of her life.

Dunham champions women’s rights and works to establish microcredit programs allowing women to be self-sufficient. While working to address poverty in East Asia, she struggles to support herself, her son and her daughter. It is a compelling story. The final chapter of her life, a battle with an insurance company over her treatment for cancer, is heart-rending. Dunham dies at 52 in 1995, but her legacy remains in her children—Barack, the community organizer, author and president, and Maya, the high school teacher, university professor and author.

Scott, a New York Times reporter since 1994, writes in a matter-of-fact journalistic style. She avoids romanticizing Ann Dunham’s life and maintains her focus on Dunham rather than getting sidetracked by trying to tell the President’s story. For more information about Scott, see these two pages.

Reading this book was a plural experience for me: it is the first book I’ve read start to finish on an eReader, and generally I chose genre fiction over nonfiction titles. A Singular Woman was my Mother’s Day present to myself. While I’m likely to continue reading books on my iPad, I probably will gravitate back to the historical romances, cozy mysteries, fantasy fiction and bestsellers that are my reading norms.

~Michelle, Adult Services

1 comment:

  1. I read this book recently too, and thought this was a great description of it. I had heard about it on NPR and was immediately intrigued with the subject.

    I liked that the book was not too romanticized and focused on Dunham's life story rather than getting to side-tracked with President Obama's. Although it did show clear and compelling evidence that her children learned from their mother and gained many of her admirable traits. The end of her life was "heart-rending," and the author did a good job of truly showing us this without being too sappy.

    The only complaint I had with the book was that I found it a bit too packed with dry writing on Dunham's work life abroad (which I did enjoy reading about), but I think there was more room for other aspects of her life that were only briefly mentioned in comparison.

    Thanks for adding the extra information link for more about writer and reporter Janny Scott.