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Wednesday, April 23, 2014         

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Not many revelations emerge in biography of Obama's mom

By Burl Burlingame

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The publisher kept a tight lid on this title, demanding strict press embargos until the biography was actually in bookstores. It's always interesting when publishers demand no publicity. What dark secrets has author and reporter Janny Scott uncovered about the international woman of mystery whom president Barack Obama calls mother?

“A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother” by Janny Scott (Penguin, $26.95)

She loved her son, thought he had potential. She loved her daughter, by another husband, also thought the second child was special. She came from a middle-class background in which education was highly prized, she worked very hard as an anthropologist, she made a world-class contribution to the concept of microfinance in undeveloped countries and then she died just as her children became functioning adults.

No one should be surprised by any of this. Scott's biography follows the arc above, filling it in with copious detail but never deviating. Sometimes the mass of detail can be overwhelming, as when family trees are sketched in bewildering profusion — an actual family-tree graphic would have been helpful — and sometimes there just isn't enough to paint a complete portrait.

It could not have been easy for Scott to assemble even what's here, even though she supposedly interviewed more than 200 people. Obama's mother was a working academic doing field work overseas for most of her life; there just isn't a massive paper trail, and those she worked with either knew her in passing or in a foreign language.

Stanley Ann Dunham was born in Kansas and high-schooled in Seattle. Her father was a glad-handing salesman and her mother a pragmatic, hard-nosed bank official, which is an interesting combination. When they moved to Hawaii, Stanley Ann attended the University of Hawaii and immediately fell in with the glamorous international crowd in the recently created East-West Center. She was quickly made pregnant and married to a visiting Kenyan scholar, Barack Obama, and Barack Obama II was born in Kapiolani Maternity and Gynecological Hospital in the late summer of 1961. The elder Obama essentially abandoned her within a year. She later met another fellow at the East-West Center, Lolo Soetoro of Indonesia, fell in love and married him, and moved with him to Indonesia to do her field work for her degree. There, daughter Maya Soetoro was born and Barack attended local schools. Interestingly, his dark skin earned him more teasing from Indonesian students than he received from classmates in Hawaii.

Stanley Ann made the difficult decision to send her son back to Hawaii for a better education, placing him with his grandparents. When her marriage to Lolo faltered, she followed a year later, working doggedly on her dissertation. She returned to Indonesia, doing field work for various agencies, and also spent time with a women's banking collective in New York. Feeling ill, she returned to Hawaii and died here a year later, in 1995, of ovarian cancer at age 52.

"A Singular Woman" recounts all of this, rather perfunctorily at first and then, as Dunham falls in love with Indonesia, settles into a rather fascinating groove that brings to life expatriate field scholars and their obsessions. This is the meat of the biography. There is nothing startling here, unless you count the possibility that she might have had a younger boyfriend some years after her divorce as big news.

Dunham, as it turns out, made significant contributions in the development of microfinance — very small loans to low-income individuals, usually for business startups — in developing countries. She seems to have been respected by most and revered by many and a warm, canny, amusing, demanding woman who identified strongly with have-nothings and worked all her life to raise living standards.

How did she do raising her kids? They seem to have come out all right. Maya and Barack Jr. are so well spoken in their love and admiration for their mother that they're almost literary in their effusion.

Alas, even though the last couple of dozen pages are brilliantly written, as Stanley Ann Dunham Obama Soetoro's life winds down precipitously, we still don't feel as if we will ever know the "real" woman, although this biography is likely about as close as we're going to get.

Barack Obama's mother never got to tell her own story, although it sounds like she would have focused on the accomplishments of others instead of herself.






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