“Barack Obama The Story” by David Maraniss: A Review


Official photographic portrait of US President...

Official photographic portrait of US President Barack Obama (born 4 August 1961; assumed office 20 January 2009) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you want to understand where Barack Obama might be coming from read this unauthorized biography by David Maraniss. The author has good credentials. He won a Pulitzer prize  for a series of stories he wrote about Clinton, and works at the Washington Post.

If you don’t like detailed histories, this book is not for you. The author gives you plenty of history. (Maybe, more than you want or need to know.)

President Obama’s Family History

The book studies President Obama’s background in-depth.  It takes you all the way from his great grandparents on both sides.  It’s a parallel story taking place in Midwest Kansas  and Kenya, Africa. Maraniss  described everything: people, places and geography.

The author begins the story in 1926 in Kansas with the suicide of Obama’s great grandmother, Ruth, at age 26.

“From the time of their mother’s death [Obama’s  grandfather and great-uncle] through the rest of their school days, they lived with their maternal grandparents in El Dorado, setting a generational pattern that would be repeated a half century later,” writes Maraniss.

In the next chapter Maraniss goes into the Kenyan side, starting with Obama’s  grandfather and grandmother. He shows that there is sharpness and intellect on both branches of Obama’s family. There is adventure,  and daring on both sides too.

President Obama’s Background

We don’t even hear about  President Obama until Chapter 5. His mother, repeats the family pattern. She falls in love with his Kenyan father while attending the University of Hawaii. (He is attending the university because of an exchange program), becomes pregnant, marries the first Obama,  and divorced him when President Obama was 2 years old. (She was unaware that he already had a Kenyan wife and child.)

We learn all about the first Barack Obama, [President Obama’s father], a man with great promise, brilliance, and charisma. Unfortunately, he also has a drinking problem that proves to be his downfall.

We get to know President Obama’s mother— Ann Dunham—an anthropologist and dedicated mother—who leaves Obama in the care of his grandparents at different times in his life. This couldn’t have made him feel too secure.

President Obama only spends a month with his biological father in 1971. They do correspond over the years, and his mother makes sure he identifies with his African background.

Years after her first divorce, his mother remarries, this time to an Indonesian man.  They live in Indonesia for several years, and welcome President Obama’s sister, Maya, into the family.  After the marriage falls apart, she and Maya stay in Indonesia where Ann worked as an anthropologist.

President Obama is sent back to Hawaii to attend a prep school. He is granted admittance into  the school because his grandfather has connections. (Later, Maya, attends the same school.)

It’s not until he goes to high school, that he earnestly begins exploring his black background. He finds a place in high school by playing basketball, and being a good student.

A defining moment of confusion in his life occurs when he overhears his grandmother telling his grandfather she is nervous about a black man at her bus stop.

“Leaving and being left were the repeating themes of “Barry Obama’s [President Obama’s] young life. ..his mother leaving his family. His father leaving the family….All in the continuum of the family history,” writes Maraniss.

All the while, Obama, is portrayed by others who knew him as very smart, affable, and responsible.  He is repeatedly described as being cautious. The book takes us up to the time he enters Harvard Law School.

The book also covers his undergraduate college years. ( Yes, he did smoke some marijuana and inhaled.) It also describes his work as a community organizer in Chicago.  There are a few girlfriends here and there too. (There isn’t anything about the First Lady).

If you don’t want to read such a complex book, I suggest you read Obama’s book, Dreams from My Father.

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