Her masculine first name was only the original singularity about Stanley Ann Dunham, mother of Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States. The “white woman from Kansas” who in 1961 wed the “black man from Kenya”—as their son put it in his stirring 2008 speech on his country’s racial divide—did so at age 18, three months pregnant, at a time when such marriages were illegal in 24 American states. She moved to Indonesia, taking her son with her. An anthropologist, Dunham worked on a mammoth, 1,000-page doctoral dissertation on small-scale blacksmithing, and also at promoting microfinancing for poor entrepreneurs—community organizing, in short, to use a phrase more associated with her son.
She divorced, remarried (to an Indonesian), had another biracial child (Barack’s half-sister, Maya), divorced again and raised her children alone—keeping Maya with her in Java, but in a wrenching decision, letting 13-year-old Barack, for the sake of his education, stay in America with her parents. Hence the title, and the dismissal Scott offers that the summary phrase, “white woman from Kansas,” barely scratches the surface of Dunham’s life: a singular woman, indeed.
There is a natural tension in the book between Scott’s fascination with Dunham, who died of cancer aged only 52 in 1995, and the fact that it is Dunham’s son who has brought the author a publisher and readers. And they are looking for the boy in the woman. Scott succeeds admirably in keeping the focus on Dunham in a way that still illuminates the president. Their similarities include a shared “sense that beneath our surface differences, we’re all the same, and that there’s more good than bad in each of us,” as the President told Scott. The differences are just as real: the way Obama embraced his future wife’s soothingly normal family can easily be seen as a reaction to his turbulent childhood. Both are Dunham’s legacies. “If nothing else,” the mother once told the son, “I gave you an interesting life.”