Few of us recognize the name of Stanley Ann Durham (1942-1995), but this bright, short-lived, much-traveled Midwesterner was the mother of Barack Obama, who described her as "the dominant figure in my formative years." To discover this posthumously influential woman, biographer Janny Scott interviewed nearly two hundred friends, colleagues, and relatives of Dunham, including the president himself. A Singular Woman is worth reading both as a heartwarming personal story and as testimony to the profound influence she has had on her son.
The mother of a path-breaking politician was a quiet revolutionary in her own right, according to this vibrant biography. Former New York Times reporter Scott paints Stanley Ann Dunham (1942–1995) as a study in unconventionality: a white woman who entered an inter-racial marriage at a time when they were illegal in many states; bore a son at 18; became an expatriate who thrived in the alien culture of Indonesia after her divorce from Obama's father. In Indonesia, she remarried and bore a daughter but ultimately became a single mother who forged a significant career as an anthropologist and economic-development expert. Drawing on Dunham's personal and professional writings and reminiscences by friends, colleagues, and the president and his half-sister, the author sensitively portrays a woman of both the warm sociability and charisma and a sharp, strong-willed and sometimes prickly intellect. Scott links Dunham to her son's commitment to community organizing and public service and to her own mother's pioneering success as a banker. But what is most striking in this account is how much Dunham was her own woman, determined to follow a wandering star despite personal setbacks and social disapproval. Scott gives us a vivid, affecting profile of an unsung feminist pioneer who made breaking down barriers a family tradition and whose legacy extends well beyond her presidential son. Photos. (May 3)
A richly nuanced, decidedly sympathetic portrait of President Obama's remarkably accomplished, spirited mother.
Actually, the story of Stanley Ann Dunham Obama Soetoro, who died of cancer in 1995, has been told at length, especially during the 2008 presidential campaign. But former New York Times reporter Scott does not believe that the treatment Obama's mother garnered in the press was fair or complete. The author conducted exhaustive interviews with family and friends to try to flesh out the biography, especially regarding her years working in Indonesia, trying to finish her doctorate degree and deciding to send back her young son, then 10, to Hawaii. There he attended a prep school in the care of her parents, a decision for which she was roundly criticized by the press. Kansas-born Stanley Ann—named after her father, though her mother was enamored by the Bette Davis character named Stanley in the 1942 filmIn This Our Life—early on set herself apart by her intellectual curiosity, wit and openness to new adventures. When her parents relocated to the new state of Hawaii upon her graduation in 1960, she became simply Ann, and immersed herself in the nascent East-West Center, where she would fall in love with the Kenyan student Barack Hussein Obama. He was 24 and married to a woman back in Kenya; she was 17 and soon pregnant; though they married quietly, they separated soon after. Ann's resilience and dogged spirit emerge continuously throughout her story. She struggled to gain her degrees while raising first "Barry," then her daughter, Maya, by her second husband, the Javanese surveyor Lolo Soetoro, all the while moving frequently to do fieldwork on Indonesian cottage industries. Her work in far-flung community outreach and microfinance gained her jobs at the Ford Foundation and the Women's World Banking, in New York City, and greatly inspired her son in his own political activism.
A biography of considerable depth and understanding.
…the key to understanding the disciplined and often impassive 44th president is his mother, as Janny Scott…decisively demonstrates in her new biography…Scott pointedly notes: "The president's mother has served as any of a number of useful oversimplifications"…[then] smashes through all of that, using meticulous reporting, archival research and extensive interviews with Dunham's colleagues, friends and family, including the president and his sister. What emerges is a portrait of a woman who is both disciplined and disorganized, blunt-spoken and empathetic, driven and devoted to her children, even as she ruefully admits her failings and frets over her distance from them.
The Washington Post
Pieces of the story of Ann Dunham, the mother of Barack Obama, we know already…We get a much fuller story of [her] life in A Singular Woman, Janny Scott's richly researched, unsentimental book. In it, we meet a very nonordinary woman, born Stanley Ann Dunham, "singular" from her naming onward.
The New York Times
An ambitious new biography. . . . Scott pursues a more perplexing and elusive figure than the one Obama pieced together in his own books.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Even Obama knew that he had not his extraordinary mother justice. Janny Scott . . . does. She portrays Dunham as a feminist, an utterly independent spirit, a cultural anthropologies, and an international development officer who surely helped shape the internationalist, post-Vietnam-era world view of her son. Scott’s book is tirelessly researched, and the sections covering Dunham’s life in Indonesia especially are new and valuable to the accumulating biography of Obama’s extended global family.”—The New Yorker
“Janny Scott packs two and a half years of research into her bio of Stanley Ann Dunham, the quixotic anthropologist who raised a president.”—People
“The restrained, straight-ahead focus—rather in the spirit, it turns out, of Dunham herself—pays off. By recovering Obama’s mother from obscurity, A Singular Woman adds in a meaningful way to an understanding of a singular president.”—Slate
“The key to understanding the disciplined and often impassive 44th president is his mother, as Janny Scott, a reporter for the New York Times, decisively demonstrates in her new biography A Singular Woman. . . . Scott [uses] meticulous reporting, archival research and extensive interviews with Dunham’s colleagues, friends and family, including the president and his sister. What emerges is a portrait of a woman who is both disciplined and disorganized, blunt-spoken and empathetic, driven and devoted to her children, even as she ruefully admits her failings and frets over her distance from them.”—The Washington Post
“Meticulously-researched and well-written . . . a necessary counterpart and corrective to Obama’s first book Dreams from my Father.”—Financial Times
“In her own right, Ann Dunham was a fascinating woman. . . . The story of the ‘singular woman’ at the center of this book is told, and told well, by Scott.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“What emerges in this straightforward, deeply reported account is a complicated portrait of an outspoken, independent-minded woman with a life of unconventional choices.”—USA Today
“We get a much fuller story of Ms. Dunham’s life in A Singular Woman, Janny Scott’s richly researched, unsentimental book.”—The New York Times“If you want to understand what shaped our president, don’t look to his father’s disappearance. It was his unconventional mother who made him. . . . [An] incisive biography.”—Newsweek
“A richly nuanced, decidedly sympathetic portrait of President Obama’s remarkably accomplished, spirited mother. . . . A biography of considerable depth and understanding.”—Kirkus
“Scott gives us a vivid, affecting profile of an unsung feminist pioneer who made breaking down barriers a family tradition and whose legacy extends well beyond her presidential son.”—Publishers Weekly (starred)