Friday 24 November 2017

A Slog through Obama's FormativE Years

Craig Seligman

Barack Obama: The Story

By David Maraniss Simon & Schuster

It's charming to read about a friendly, chubby six-year-old named Barack Obama, whose mother married an Indonesian and whisked the boy from his native Honolulu to a four-room house on a dirt road in a quarter of Jakarta without sewers or gutters. He adapted easily.

David Maraniss's book takes the US president through to the age of 26, when he left his job as a community organiser in Chicago to enter Harvard Law School.

Maraniss, an editor at the 'Washington Post', takes the strictly chronological approach you would expect of a biographer, but it doesn't serve him all that well. Obama isn't born until Chapter 7 (of 18).

I'd advise readers to start there, read to the end, and then return to the chapters about his grandparents and his parents.

His mother's parents, Stanley and Madelyn Dunham, were probably as important in forming him as she was. His grandfather, a small-potatoes salesman who seldom held a job for long, gave him the cautionary example of an unfulfilled life. But his love (and love of fun) provided the boy with bedrock confidence.

His grandmother, who rose from escrow officer to vice president at the Bank of Hawaii, had a more reticent personality and a more dependable income. She gave him stability.

Maraniss is damning on the subject of Mr Obama's father, a Kenyan economist who made a number of women unhappy before he destroyed himself with a combination of heavy drinking and psychotic driving.

"Barry could not know," he writes, "that perhaps the luckiest thing that happened to him in his young life was that his father had left."

One consequence of being raised by his white mother and grandparents was that he knew few black people until he went to college. Mr Obama's search for his black identity became the theme of his 1995 memoir, 'Dreams From My Father.'

Maraniss is thorough to a fault. This is probably the first book about Mr Obama to reveal that the burgers his high-school basketball team scarfed on the day of their final game contained carrots, celery, onions, teriyaki sauce and wheatgerm.

Although that tidbit, and hundreds like it, will doubtless be of interest to future scholars, the general reader may find this book, as I did, a slog.

Maraniss's writing is clear and straightforward, his analysis of personality astute and his subject obviously important. I just wish I could call his book exciting. (Reuters)

Available with P&P on or by calling 091-709350

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