A singular woman : the untold story of Barack Obama's mother

by Janny Scott

Hardcover, 2011





New York : Riverhead Books, 2011.


Award-winning reporter Scott uncovers the full breadth of Stanley Ann Dunham's inspiring and untraditional life.

Media reviews

In an ambitious new biography, “A Singular Woman,” Janny Scott travels from Kansas to Hawaii to Indonesia in an effort to account for the disparate forces that forged Dunham and, by extension, her son. Scott sets out to complicate the familiar image of Obama’s mother as simply “a white woman from Kansas.” Through interviews with Dunham’s relatives, friends and colleagues; at least one possible lover; and her two children, Maya Soetoro-Ng and Barack Obama, Scott pursues a more perplexing and elusive figure than the one Obama pieced together in his own books.

User reviews

LibraryThing member pieterpad
WHAT AN APT title: A Singular Woman, a biography of Stanley Ann Dunham, the mother of Barack Obama. Janny Scott has given us a detailed, concise overview of Dunham's formative childhood, her career, and her character: taken together they provide a portrait not only of the woman, but of one important aspect of the times she flourished in, roughly the mid-sixties to the end of the century.

Brought up peripatetically — her father alternated between salesman and student, moving his household from El Dorado (Kansas) to Berkeley to Wichita to Ponca City (Oklahoma) to Seattle during her grammar-school years — Dunham went to high school on Mercer Island, a suburb of Seattle; then moved with her parents to Honolulu, where she attended college, majoring in anthropology.

Scott's biography begins wisely with a full portrait of Dunham's mother, née Madelyn Payne, and even of her mother, Leona McCurry. Indeed one of the unstated subtexts of the book is the persistence of the maternal strain through these generations, the power and influence of the character traits, the "values," formed and transmitted through the maternal side of the family. This gives considerable insight into the personally held values informing President Obama's political agenda: indeed, an important aspect of Scott's book is its identification of the liberal agenda of contemporary social democracy with the timeless values of communitarian society.

The subtitle of the book seems at first unfortunate, purely a marketing ploy: but it reveals the immediate journalistic value of Scott's achievement, which began in the first place with an article she wrote for the New York Times during the 2008 presidential campaign.

But the lasting value of her book will be its double portrait of Dunham herself and the unique moment of her career: Indonesia (and specifically Java), roughly 1970-2000, where she first pursued anthropological field-work, concentrating on small village industry (metalworking, basketry, ceramics, textiles); later worked with NGOs administering microbanking activities.

If the belligerent aspects of the twentieth century could be set aside, another side of it could be seen with greater clarity: its flowering of the intercultural encounters that had begun with the voyages of the fifteenth century, had gone wrong with European colonialism, had further deteriorated with global commercial exploitation, and had reached a climax with World War II. Janny Scott depicts the best possible view of this encounter, when the humanistic aspirations of cultural anthropology join village pragmatism to modern but local technology, whether physical or — as in the case of microfinance — administrative.

Further, her description not only of Ann Dunham but of her parents reveals the presence, during that moment — from the mid-sixties on — of a personal attitude, or orientation, that may be held by only a minority but that has nevertheless significant implications for the future of our society: an attitude that the dollar is not important for itself but as a means of living, working, and effecting personal and societal progress and justice.

Ann Dunham made a number of decisions most would find unwise or rash — if, that is, they were "decisions" in any useful sense of the word. She was apparently swept off her feet by her first romance, with a foreign student from Kenya who she met in Honolulu: the result was her son Barack and her first marriage.

Later, a similar romance led to her second marriage, to Lolo Soetoro, who she met at an "Indonesian Night" reception at the East-West Center, also in Honolulu. Intercultural encounter can be literally generative: this produced her second child, her daughter Maya, now, since her marriage to a Chinese-Canadian, Maya Soetoro-Ng.

Neither of Dunham's marriages worked out in the conventional sense: Obama senior left Honolulu for graduate work on the East Coast, then returned to Kenya; Lolo Soetoro, after his and Dunham's divorce, ultimately remarried an Indonesian woman with whom he had apparently been long involved. Scott's treatment of these narratives is matter-of-fact, illuminating, and sympathetic. In fact the marriages did work out; they worked themselves out, or the partners out of the marriages. Dunham was meant to follow her own way, to pursue her interests and her work.

A Singular Woman is I think a uniquely American story; but America is divided. The liberal side of Kansas; Berkeley and Honolulu; the liberal arts; the world of international NGOs form Blue American: Red America — ironic that a color once associated with Communism now characterizes conservative Republicanism — will hardly approve Ann Dunham's "decisions."

The book has its production problems. There is no index, though the pages teem with people, places, institutions, and ideas. The photographs are for the most part badly reproduced and far too small on the page.

Scott narrates the book as a journalist, not a scholar. This is mostly a good thing: the prose moves forward with considerable momentum, even though outcomes are telegraphed; and the vagueness or, more often, ambiguities of her sources are met honestly with the author's own voice present in her accounts. The tone is often conversational, as friends, lovers, associates of Dunham's step forward either in person or through allusion to offer insights into the motives and interests of this remarkable and, yes, singular woman.
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LibraryThing member lhossler
I kept waiting for something to happen,. Finally I gave up. The title says it all, "Barak Obama's Mother". While she influenced his life, she was not a daily influence to him. There were too many details about her work and education in Indonesia, but the author seemed to be searching for facts. The book was way too long.
LibraryThing member juniperSun
Scott was so careful not to make any statements about her subject. Consequently most of the text is either impersonal facts about towns, organizations, etc. or "X said...", "according to Y...", and "in my interview of Z...". There were just as many descriptions of the informants as there were of Ann Dunham Sutoro.
Despite that, somewhat of an impression is left of a woman doing the best she can to live life to the fullest.
"Her life...was an improvisation, marked by stumbles and leaps." (p 5)
I really like this part about Adi Sasono (which also illustrates how much of the book wasn't about Ann at all) "the dysfunctions of the 'modern' development sector and why it so inexorably increases the marginalization of the majority of the population...It was assumed [by most planners/governments] that rapid industrialization and the exploitation of natural resources were the best route to economic development and high employment. But ...the benefits of growth were not trickling down." (p. 236) Precisely.
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LibraryThing member hereandthere
The life of Stanley Ann Dunham would never have been described in print had she not been the mother of Barack Obama. Does her story have any larger significance, apart from being the life that formed Obama?

Janny Scott's reporting on Barack Obama's mother a few years ago in the New York Times was fascinating and enlightening about his past, and led to this book. The book is the story of a middle class woman with a wandering spirit, who spent much of her life in Indonesia, and clearly loved that place and its culture. She was no mere visitor there. She married into the place, she learned the language, and she sunk into it. She was always tied to the U.S., economically, culturally and through her parents in Hawaii, but truly she was never of the U.S. She set sail in her teens, and never really looked back.

Ann Dunham worked for the Ford Foundation among other organizations. After 20 years of work in Indonesia she completed a well-regarded Ph.D. dissertation on small scale craft manufacture and village economics. She was a woman who could operate comfortably in Indonesia and, later in life, was a respected voice in international economic development.

She was a fierce believer in her son, and worked tirelessly to assure his education. There are hints that she actually believed when he was only a teen that he might be President some day (but then, how many mothers have had that thought?), and late in her life she was aware of his political ambitions as he prepared to run for office.

Her story reminds us that Obama is the first "post-boomer" President. It was his mother, born in 1942, who was the boomer in spirit (if a little early by actual birth date), and he's already of the generation that the boomers raised, as they built their lives in the world created by and inherited from the generation of the second World War.

I wouldn't say that you need this book to understand Obama, but it provides some fascinating background about the people and world that shaped him. The book suffers from a surfeit of under-organized recollections from people that it is hard to identify (as a reader.) The early history is built from interviews and recollections and sometimes you just need to skip a page or two. But the book consistently rewards to the end, conveying a life that, like all lives, comes to take on a significance independent of the lives that she engendered. Ann Dunham is no hero, no genius, no world transforming figure. She was just an ordinary, unique, involved, thoughtful professional and political human being, and the mother of a future President. She is extraordinary in an ordinary sense. She's interesting to read about, and the hearing of her story enables us to imagine the 1950s through the 1990s of America and America abroad in East Asia from the perspective of an idealistic development worker, always with the strange foreshadowing that although neither she nor anyone in the story could really know it at the time, all this ordinary living was leading to the later public life of Barack Hussein Obama.
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LibraryThing member tangledthread
Janny Scott takes on the task of illuminating the life of a most unusual woman whose life was much more than the "white woman from Kansas" description of the President's political campaign.

The book begins in a linear fashion, tracing the roots of Stanley Ann Dunham's heritage. The narrative begins to wander from the linear as Ann's parents move from Kansas, to California, to the Pacific Northwest and finally to Hawaii. Once the story entered Ann's adult life as she entered college and her first marriage, the narrative became more looping than linear. I struggled with the looping of the narrative and wished for a timeline and a chart of people through the moves back and forth between Hawaii and Indonesia, and various points throughout the Pacific archipelago that Ann studied. But as the narrative entered the last third of the book, I began to realize that the looping in the narrative was very characteristic of S. Ann Dunham's life. It was time to let go of the lists and just absorb the story of this remarkable woman's life.

The author spent a great deal of time, travel, and effort to trace the path and interview the people who could shed light on a very full and somewhat chaotic life. What emerges is a fascinating portrait of a woman who lived life on her own terms, often at the edge of economic security. One of the things I appreciate most about this book, is that despite the subtitle, we see that S. Ann Dunham was much more than Barack Obama's mother: the President's personal reflections on his mother are saved for the epilogue.

I almost gave up on this one in the middle, but am glad I stuck with it. There's a lot to digest when one reaches the end of the story.
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LibraryThing member Sullywriter
A richly detailed biography of a fascinating woman. Ann Dunham had flaws and made her share of mistakes as we all do, but she managed to live a full, rich, meaningful life despite her premature deimse from cancer at age 52. She was a great intellectual, fearless adventurer, deeply compassionate, and generous to a fault. Her son's best qualities are clearly her legacy.… (more)
LibraryThing member bakersfieldbarbara
Wow! I cannot believe I have never heard of this woman and her contribution to the world. Not because she is the President's mother, but because she is Stanley Ann Dunham, an anthropoligist, developement consultant, microfinancier, and mother, wife and American. I became breathless just following her from birth to death, and in between.

The story begins at a time when interracial marriage was a crime and segregation and discrnmination were facts of life. Defying the rules of race, motherhood and gender, Ms. Dunham did things that only an unconventional woman could do. Falling in love with a kenyan student at the University of Hawaii in 1960 , she became pregnant with his child at age 17. Evidently, her two marriages ended, she rasied her now two children in Indonesia. Making the heartbreaking decision to allow her son to live with his grandparents so that he could bget a better educationm she continued on with her courageous and uncommon course.Her values and choices shaped the man her son is today.

I had a difficult time putting this book down as I was reliving my own life as it copied much of Ms. Dunhams. I especially found it troubling that President Obama speaks more highly of his absent father than of his hard working and delightful mother, who made typical motherly sacrifices to give her children the best that she could considering her situation. I would love to have met this wonderful woman and laughed and cried at how our children are so unaware of what we do to surviv e and thrive as single mothers.

I recommend this book highly, and especially to those whom think that Obama is from another planet or country, and that his birth is suspicious. What an insult to this fascinating woman and to those of us who look at all of the facts in a person's life. Buy this book for anyone who is a doubter and a birther. An unprescendented book, about an unprescendented lady.
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LibraryThing member Jcambridge
Given so much attention has been given to and written about Barack Obama's father, I enjoyed reading a history of his mother. When one considers her life and generation, she truly was a singular woman, venturing to parts of the world and societies where relatively few Americans (particularly women) ever considered going. She was fortunate to have had parents who were willing and available to step in and help raise her son, who clearly faced challenges while living in Indonesia. I enjoyed the book and have a real appreciation of the research on which Ann Dunham focused so much of her life. She may not have been physically present for much of his youth, but there can be no doubt that she loved her son and in her own way set an example of what one can do with her/his life.… (more)
LibraryThing member Tod_Christianson
I was watching President Obama give a speech on television and it dawned on me that I didn't really know anything about his parents and that he was young enough that they should still be around. A quick internet searched revealed that his parents had passed away. I was intrigued by a picture of Obama's mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, simply because she looked so much like many intelligent and independent women that I have met. I decided to learn more about her if I could and decided to read Scott's biography.

Singular Woman is a very thorough examination of a life lived. There is actually only an appropriate amount of detail regarding Barack and really nothing about his political ascendancy since that mostly occurred after his mother had passed. This is a book about a woman who followed her passions and made a meaningful life for herself and her family. She managed to raise two interracial children, essentially as single parent - albeit with substantial support from her own parents. She also pursued her own intellectual passions from the United States to India.

It is a triumphant story of a modern woman and it would have been interesting to have a conversation with her, but we are fortunate to have this Biography to help appreciate a life well lived.
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LibraryThing member rhactor
Fascinating look at the woman who was Obama's mother. An anthropologist, who lived in Kenya and Thailand.



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