BOOK REVIEW: Mrs. Jellyby goes to Java
A SINGULAR WOMAN: THE UNTOLD STORY OF BARACK OBAMA’S MOTHER
By Janny Scott
Riverhead Books, $26.95, 376 pages
A few pages into former New York Times reporter Janny Scott’s impressively researched but sometimes plodding biography of our 44th president’s mother, I was reminded of Mrs. Jellyby, one of novelist Charles Dickens‘ better secondary creations. An intelligent, well-intended but more than a little ridiculous do-gooder, Mrs. Jellyby is a colorful supporting character in that late Dickensian masterpiece “Bleak House.”
Described by her creator as a “telescopic philanthropist,” Mrs. Jellyby is “a lady of very remarkable strength of character, who devotes herself entirely to the public” - often at the expense of her own family’s well-being - and her eyes have “a curious habit of seeming to look a long way off … as if they could see nothing nearer than Africa!”
Worthy and absurd, endearing and infuriating, Stanley Ann Dunham - President Obama’s mother - was a true 20th-century Mrs. Jellyby. In love with abstract humanity and all things far and foreign, she was never really comfortable in her own homeland. The bulk of her active adult life was spent overseas, devoted to her slow-motion pursuit of a doctoral dissertation on the rural blacksmiths of Java, Indonesia, and to the worthy goal of encouraging small-scale “microcredit” economic development at the village level, even while she hopelessly neglected her own financial responsibilities.
When she finally came back to the States to die, she hadn’t put in enough home-time work to qualify for Social Security or Medicare - nobody’s fault but her own. A brave, stubborn woman, she always wanted to do things her way and seldom seems to have thought about the consequences to herself or others.
Many of us went to school with someone like that: the bright but plain wallflower who was both scornful of and ignored by most of her more popular, conventional classmates. “[She] felt that she could never have been one of them even if she had wanted to be,” a contemporary of Dunham’s tells the author. So she moved in a small circle of fellow middle-class outsiders who liked to think of themselves as superior, creative types, although most of them would soon fall back into conventional grooves.
Ann Dunham was made of sterner - or at least more stubborn - stuff. Thanks to her partly self-imposed “outsider” status, she had little or no romantic life in high school. But things changed dramatically when she went off to college. There, as a 17-year-old University of Hawaii freshman, Dunham met and, according to Ms. Scott, was summarily seduced by a dashingly exotic Third World student seven years older than herself. She became pregnant and was married in a small, private ceremony.
As often happens in such scenarios, her foreign seducer was quick to abandon his WASP trophy wife once the novelty of the arrangement wore off and opportunity beckoned elsewhere. Besides, in this case, Barack Obama Sr. already had a wife and children back home in Kenya.
Fortunately, jilted American brides often bounce back quicker than you might expect. Some of them even seek and achieve a second Third World liaison. Life can be less easy for the mixed-race progeny of their initial mismatch. Thus, while young “Barry” Obama, whose Kenyan father decamped when he was just 10 months old, would be haunted into early adulthood by “Dreams From My Father” (the title of his first book), his mother continued her love affair with the Third World by marrying a second exotic foreigner, this time one Lolo Soetoro, an affable, well-connected Indonesian grad student who liked to party.
Which is how little Barry came to spend several early childhood years in rural Indonesia with a native stepfather, native servants and early-morning homework sessions with his mother, a person who was very, very good when she clearly recognized her responsibilities, but was very, very scatterbrained when she lost sight of them.
As it usually does in such cases, life became more complicated for both young Barry and his mother. After having a daughter by her second husband, Dunham eventually split again. Meanwhile, Barry was sent back to his American grandparents in Hawaii to attend an prestigious prep school that would set a bright kid like him on the track to a privileged university education and greater things beyond.
For the rest of her relatively short life, his mother fluttered about, gaming the complex system of grants, consultancies and fellowship programs so beloved by perennial grad students unwilling or unable to find a real, lasting job. Before you know it, she is dying of cancer and her son Barry is about to become a senator.
The rest is history, although poor Ann Dunham’s life remained restless to the end - so peripatetic that the publishers of her biography found it necessary to provide reviewers with an 11-page chronology of her wanderings along with the book itself. By the time one gets to Dunham’s uncharacteristically speechless deathbed scene, the strongest impression is not of her but of her absent son.
For all his flaws, Mr. Obama is a man who managed to forge a strong, individual identity from contradictory, dysfunctional scraps and tatters. Bit by bit, piece by piece, he has made himself into a unified, cohesive whole. Granted all this, his ability to speak to and inspire millions of Americans is evidence of a formidable and undeniable personal achievement, no matter how much one may disagree with many of his policies.
Aram Bakshian Jr. served as an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan.
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