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

August 8, 2012

A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother, by Janny Scott.  Riverhead Trade (2012), Paperback, 400 pages.

A fine biography of a remarkable woman, who, among her other achievements, was the mother of the US president.

Janny Scott’s biography of Ann Dunhum, as she chose to be known in her adult years, is well-researched and well written.  In it, Scott establishes that Barak Obama’s mother was much more than the shallow figure presented in the media.  She was a woman of unusual strengths and talents.  Always an outsider, she made her own way through difficulties and contributed significantly to the understanding of the Indonesian countryside and more directly to the lives of the peasant women who lived there.

Although aware of Dunhum’s mistakes and weaknesses, Scott has written a generally positive account of her life, depicting her as intelligent, open and adventurous woman who loved life.  Dunhum was a professional anthropologist and development worker capable of meticulous and disciplined focus on the needs of others, and a pioneer in the establishment of microcredit for peasant women in Indonesia.  Tolerant and full of good stories and useful information, she could also be critical of those who struck her as stupid, lazy, and insensitive to the needs and culture of others. Others described her as both “perpetually on the edge of smiling” and “principled but not judgmental.”

Scott begins her story with Ann Dunhum’s grandparents who were farmers in rural Kansas, people who valued education.  Growing up during the depression, Ann’s parents sought wider horizons.  Her mother married young. While her husband fought in World War II, she returned to Kansas where she commuted to work in the expanding aircraft industry, leaving Ann in the care of her parents.  After the war ended, the family moved around the country as Ann’s father sought good employment.  Eventually they landed near Seattle, where Ann’s mother was able to find a position that provided stability during Ann’s high school years and beyond.  Although she didn’t date, Ann found companionship with boys in her classes who were beginning to be cynical about suburban life in the 1950s, already expressing some of the critical opinions that would explode a decade later into a countercultural movement.

When Ann graduated from high school, the family moved to Hawaii, which had recently gained statehood.  Ann began her freshman year at the University of Hawaii where innovative new international programs were being unveiled.  Swept up in the international atmosphere, she met and married the dynamic Kenyan, Barack Obama,Sr. , and gave birth to her son.  The marriage was never stable and Obama, Sr. quickly moved on.  Ann continued her undergraduate studies as a single mother, assisted financially and practically by her parents, especially by her mother who was advancing into increasingly responsible positions in banking.  Ann soon fell in love again and married a gentle Indonesian man.  After her graduation, she and her son “Barry” followed him back to Indonesia.   They lived there three years, from the time her son was six to nine.  Ann learned and taught the local language and worked with individuals who were trying to span the differences between cultures.  Maya, her daughter, was born there.  Again Ann’s marriage did not develop as she had dreamed. Her husband lost her respect for not standing up to the corruption which surrounded him, but they remained on friendly, but distant terms.  She and the children returned to Hawaii where she entered the Ph.D. program in anthropology which would lead to the work she wanted to do in Indonesia.

After four years, Ann had completed the classwork for her Ph.D. and returned to Indonesia to do the field work necessary for her dissertation.  Maya returned with her, but Barack, age 13, decided to remain in Hawaii where he could continue to receive educational opportunities not possible in Indonesia.  Ann kept close contact with him, writing him daily and arranging visits.  She also homeschooled Maya and other children, and left Maya with a “village” of friends and relations when she left on field trips.  She taught her children to value honesty,  fairness, independent judgment and had high expectations for them.   Obama says she wanted him to be “sort of a cross between Einstein, Gandhi, and Belafonte,” or at least “somebody strong and honest and doing good in the world.”

After four years of research in peasant villages, Ann accepted employment in a development project working in innovative ways to provide assistance to peasants engaging in traditional crafts.  Eventually she finished her dissertation, but she continued to be lured away from writing and publishing by employment that provided her with much-needed income and chances to develop programs provided practical assistance to other women in greater need.

Dunhum’s research established that the crafts were an expanding resource for Indonesian villagers, limited chiefly by lack of capital, not backwardness of the people.  Women were active in producers of various crafts and were in special need of support.  She worked to make that support available to them, sometimes doing the same community organizing that her son was doing in Chicago. She accumulated extensive knowledge about the villages, and in fact would not act until she had gathered the necessary data.   Often she was a catalyst and the bridge between various groups and individuals, local, national, and international.  Because she was so knowledgeable, open, and ready to laugh, her Indonesian home became a meeting place for those working in the field.

Other than the anthropological writings by Dunhum herself, few written sources exist telling her life story, so Scott relied heavily on the memories of her family and her friends.   She traveled all over the globe and interviewed literally hundreds of people who had known her subject.  Like any good biographer, Scott is aware of the problems of trusting anyone’s memory and opens her books with a caution to readers that no one has full and accurate knowledge about Ann or parents.  In writing the book, Scott moves smoothly from one informant to another, carefully alerting us of the possibilities for errors and contradictions.  She makes no attempt to reconcile conflicting stories and even presents alternative versions of some of Barack Obama’s statements about his mother in Dreams of my Father. Although Ann was never typical, Scott has read widely about the times and places of life and puts her and her family in various contexts.

Despite Scott’s intent to show Dunhum as having lived a multifaceted life, the author and this reader kept seeing how strongly she and the culture of Asia shaped her son Barack.  Indonesian culture put a premium of listening and understanding the position of those who oppose you and never losing your temper with them.  Reading Scott’s book, I wondered if some of my own criticism of Obama’s failure to stand up to the Republicans is based in what he learned as a boy in Indonesia.   Obama, himself, expresses deep appreciation and love for his mother.

“In my daughters I see her every day, her joy, her capacity of wonder…I know that she was the kindest, most generous spirit I have ever known, and what is best in me I owe to her.”

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in how a woman puts together a useful and interesting life in another culture or in understanding our current president.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 8, 2012 10:39 am

    Looks like an interesting read!

  2. August 8, 2012 11:43 am

    A fine review of an inspirational book. It is refreshign to know a little bit more about the wonderful woman who gave birth to the most important man on earth. Thank you for sharing

  3. August 9, 2012 1:13 pm

    Thanks to both of you.

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