Janny Scott's intriguing new biography of Stanley Ann Dunham began as a newspaper profile published on the front page of the New York Times in March 2008, just as Dunham's son, Barack Obama, was driving toward the Democratic Party nomination. By then the campaign had already begun to use her as a symbol of its themes. She was the naive Kansas farm girl who, at 18, fell in love with a sophisticated Kenyan college student; the single mother scraping by on food stamps; the middle-aged woman fighting with her insurance company when she should have been battling the cancer that would kill her. But Scott had done a good bit of digging. And she knew that the campaign's descriptions didn't come close to capturing the complex life she had uncovered. So her profile became something of a rescue operation, meant to save the real Ann Dunham from the stories her son was telling.
Since her article appeared Scott has dug deeper still, reviewing a remarkable number of documents, plowing through Dunham's 1000-page doctoral dissertation and interviewing almost 200 of her friends and family members. In the process, she's shattered whatever was left of the campaign's cliches. Gone is the starry-eyed Kansan, replaced by a hard-driving expatriate intellectual who spent almost 25 years living and working in Indonesia, first as an anthropologist studying Javanese handicrafts, then as a development officer for several major foundations that specialized in micro-finance long before that particular technique won world-wide acclaim.
Dunham brought the same cosmopolitanism to her family life. She married Barack Obama Sr. and then her second husband, an Indonesian named Lolo Soetoro, at a time when inter-racial marriages were incredibly rare, and, in a good portion of the country, illegal. When she moved six-year-old Barack Jr. to Indonesia in 1967, she insisted that he be immersed in the culture as much as possible, a commitment she maintained for the next four years, until she decided that the local schools weren't what she wanted them to be and sent him back to Hawaii to attend a prestigious prep school. Obama's half-sister Maya she kept at her side, bringing her along on research trips into the countryside, making sure she was fluent in both Indonesian and English, raising her to blur together worlds that were in many ways fundamentally different. "That was very much her philosophy of life," Maya told Scott, "to not be limited by fear or narrow definitions, to not build walls around ourselves and to do our best to find kinship and beauty in unexpected places."
A singular woman indeed.
Only at the end of the book does a slightly discordant note creep in. It comes from that most detached of observers, President Obama. Sitting with Scott in the Oval Office in the summer of 2010, he reminisced about his mother's persistence, resilience, and unconditional love. But he also talked about the costs her unconventional life imposed on him: the insecurity that came with her "constant motion," the financial strain, the prolonged separations that began when he was all of 10. And suddenly Dunham's story shifts again. For a moment she seems like so many other American women, struggling to reconcile her professional ambitions, her deep-seated idealism, and her fierce determination to give her children every possible advantage.
But Scott doesn't let the image linger. Instead she draws Dunham back into the enormity of her son's achievement: for a while she and the president discuss how proud his mother would have been of the multi-racial coalition that won him the White House. In the process Dunham once again becomes the singular figure Scott wants her to be. No doubt there's a great deal of truth to that characterization. As compelling as it is, though, Dunham's story would have been richer still had Scott allowed this remarkable woman to seem just a little bit like the rest of us.
"A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother"
By Janny Scott
Riverhead Books, 384 pg., $26.95
Kevin Boyle teaches history at Ohio State University. His book, "Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age," received the Chicago Tribune's Heartland Prize, as well as a National Book Award for nonfiction.