An exhaustive, respectful study of the president’s “shattered genealogy,” from Kansas to Kenya, Hawaii to Indonesia.
Washington Post associate editor Maraniss (Into the Story: A Writer's Journey Through Life, Politics, Sports and Loss, 2010, etc.) painstakingly constructs a sensible, solid grounding beneath the mythology of the current president. However, note that Obama only reaches age 27 in this long biography. Accepted to Harvard Law School, his political future “still amorphous but taking shape,” he resolved finally to visit the land of his absent father, Kenya, and make sense of his African heritage. “Leaving and being left” had become the themes of his childhood, and Maraniss has certainly done his homework, delving both into the original Kansas Dunham clan, marked by the suicide by poisoning of Obama’s great-grandmother Ruth Dunham, in 1926, and the prideful rise and tortured demise of Obama’s father and namesake, the Harvard-educated economist who was undone by hubris and alcoholism. Considering the many tangled strands of Obama’s story, it is extraordinary that he did not lose himself. Yet these same “misfits” in his family, especially his hardworking mother and her Kansan parents, Stanley and Madelyn, embraced the biracial grandson unconditionally, shielding him from the bigotry of the era by entertaining the tale that he descended from Hawaiian royalty. Maraniss’ portrayal of Barack Obama senior, from astute political mind to abusive husband and self-destructive drinker, is masterful and moving, while “Barry” the son emerges very gradually from the cocoon of his elite Honolulu boarding school to grasp his identity as an African-American young man at Occidental College and then Columbia in the 1980s.
Maraniss stresses that Obama’s Muslim ancestors encompass only one facet to his complex, fascinating makeup. Another in the author’s line of authoritative biographies.