David Maraniss is one of the more talented non-fiction writers in this country. His biographies of Bill Clinton and Al Gore have been widely acclaimed. His biography of pro football’s legendary coach Vince Lombardi, “When Pride Still Mattered,” is one of the best sports books I have ever read. When Maraniss takes on a project, he puts his heart and soul into it and leaves no stone unturned.
His latest effort is “Barack Obama: The Story.” Maraniss spent four years spanning the globe to research the origins and development of the man who went on to become our first African-American president.
Forget about politics, birtherism and conspiracy theories. This biography is the amazing story of how two completely diverse cultures intersected by chance and produced somebody who came to embody the American ideal that anyone can become president.
Maraniss’ story is so in-depth that President Obama doesn’t appear until the seventh chapter. The author spent a great deal of time in rural Kansas and the backcountry of Kenya conducting research and interviewing family members to learn what forces led to Obama’s parents meeting by chance one day at the University of Hawaii. It’s almost like getting a history lesson of Kansas and Kenya (how much do we really study those places in school?).
Some of the background stories on Obama are quite revealing. Other than the suicide of his great-grandmother, Obama’s mother’s family is pure Americana. One can only imagine scenes of them sipping lemonade on their front porch on a hot summer day, baking apple pies, and attending the county fair.
Obama’s mother was named Stanley Ann Dunham. Apparently the name came not from her father (also named Stanley) but from the Bette Davis character in “In This Our Life.” Obama’s grandmother absolutely adored the actress. Stanley Ann and her parents bounced around the Midwest and the West Coast as her father kept looking for his niche in life. The family eventually settled in Hawaii.
What we learn about Barack Obama’s father is more than just the fact he was a brilliant economics student who managed to gain acceptance to graduate school at the University of Hawaii. He may have had a Muslim name, but was actually an atheist. In fact, his family had much more influence from Christian missionaries than any Muslim teachings. He was also quite a ladies man who apparently had no problem with polygamy. He was already married with two children in Kenya when he met and married Stanley Ann (a fact he never mentioned to her).
When our future president finally appears in the story it is not surprising that he grows up conflicted and constantly trying to find himself. After all, he was raised by a single mother and his maternal grandparents, and only saw his father once in his life (when he was 10).
Obama spent some of his formative years with his mother in Indonesia and the rest being with his grandparents in Honolulu. He went to a prestigious private school, but was not rich. Being biracial, it was hard to know how to identify himself. Although there were many children of mixed races in Hawaii, the natives didn’t exactly welcome them with open arms.
As could be expected, Obama decided to come to the mainland after high school and attend college at Occidental in Los Angeles. A big city was a way to possibly connect with his African-American heritage.
He didn’t fully find it there and transferred to Columbia in New York City after two years. It wasn’t until he found a job as a community organizer in Chicago that he felt he found his niche in life.
The book ends with his acceptance to Harvard Law School where he hoped to eventually make a greater impact on the lives of others. It does not cover his political career at all, but rather how he evolved into the person he came to be. Maraniss simply tries to connect the dots of the complicated life of a complicated man.
The narrative is not all smooth sailing. Some of it gets lost in minute details that aren’t always easy to follow. This is especially true when Maraniss is talking about Obama’s ancestors in Kenya. There are so many names, places and customs that it’s hard to remember who is who and what is what. The Kansas side of the story is easier to digest, perhaps because we can relate to it easier.
But that is just nitpicking. Most of the story is fascinating and sometimes spellbinding. Between his family background and upbringing, Barack Obama has had quite a life.
I assume that Maraniss will write a sequel that will focus on Obama’s transformation into politics. He has put so much time and energy into this biography it is clear there is much more to tell. What we learned from “Barack Obama: The Story” is that our president is a truly unique individual with a unique American story. Like him or not it’s one worth reading.