Thursday, July 5, 2012

A Singular Woman, by Janny Scott (author), January Lavoy (reader)


Riverhead Trade, ISBN 9781594485593, January 2012

Barack Obama's mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, is an almost forgotten figure in the public story of his life. She died before his political career really took off, but she was still alive when he wrote the memoir, Dreams From My Father, that focused more on his feelings about his absent, and by then deceased, Kenyan father. Her impact on her son, though, was profound, and Scott gives us a fascinating picture of this strong and important woman.

Scott first digs into the history of Stanley and Madelyn Dunham's families, examining how thoroughly and typically American Barack Obama's roots on his mother's side are. It's an interesting story, and some of the interest comes of seeing where the young Barack accepted as true family stories he was told, that on closer examination prove to rest on shaky ground. None of the embellishments are very important; they mainly reflected Stanley Dunham's love of a good story. What they tell us about Barack Obama is that, like most of us, he didn't question the stories he'd been hearing from infancy.

Stanley Ann's upbringing was unsettled in a way I can relate to, moving from place to place as her father pursued work, until they finally settled on Mercer Island, Washington, for most of her teenage years. It was a progressive community, committed to educational success for its young people, and the young Stanley Ann flourished, and tested her developing strong personality inf frequent conflict with her father.

All this is set-up to a story we mostly haven't heard, about Stanley Ann's growth into Ann Dunham Soetero, anthropologist and development specialist who studied the economic and cultural realities of life in rural Indonesia, and helped pioneer microfinance as a tool to revitalize, rather than remake, the lives of the urban poor. She advance the at-the-time radical notion that what the poor lacked, was, mostly, capital, rather than work ethic or basic skills. Janny Scott's writing unfolds a warm, fascinating, impulsive, committed personality who helped to change the world around her and had an enormous impact on her son's developing values and worldview.

Highly recommended.

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I borrowed this book from a friend.