Last week, on National Book-Character-Dressing-Up Day at my son’s primary school, a plump 8-year-old showed up in a smart grey jacket with his hair newly cropped, carrying a copy of Dreams From My Father. He was being Barack Obama; and he did look the image of the photos of the president at a similar age in Janny Scott’s book. However in those days Obama would never have worn a suit.
Aged about two, my own son was pronounced “better-looking than Obama” by his grandmother, apropos of nothing. We weren’t talking about the newly-elected US president at the time; he was just the only other brown-skinned person on Mum’s radar.
I picked up this book about President Obama’s mother, looking, I suppose, for some tips from a typical-white woman on successfully raising a half-African (or “bi-racial” as Americans have it) child. Very successfully. Not that I’m confessing to any comparable delusions of grandeur when it comes to my own son, naturally (though Stanley Ann Dunham was obviously not without them for hers.) I just want him to be at ease, literally, in his own skin.
But this is not a book about motherhood, of any sort. The young Barack – a sturdy kid – features in the photos, but not much in the text. Perhaps I wouldn’t have bothered with it if I’d known in advance; if so, I’m glad I didn’t know. I loved this book like a novel. It tells a woman’s story good and sad enough for any Hollywood weepie. It’s the story in which Barack himself took no interest in his own memoir, that book being more about the father he met just once. And the story to which he still doesn’t do justice, on the evidence here. Janny Scott’s omissions actually suggest more about motherhood than she can say. Barack doesn’t – can’t – do Ann’s professional career justice, because to him, she is just his mum.
Instead, unexpected things resonate. Here’s the story of an out-of-place provincial girl, mesmerized by the exotic and longing to escape. Disregarding convention, she does so, and as a very young mother throws herself wholeheartedly into the destination of her choice, Indonesia. Over the years she becomes, by all accounts, a first-class anthropologist, hands-on field work in the remotest villages a speciality. More a world-improver, however, than a pure academic, she is eventually in demand as a development consultant, with particular reference to women and microfinance. She doesn’t care about making money herself, except as a means to provide education for her children. She knows, as any Westerner who has spent time in the underdeveloped world does, that here you can live very well on virtually nothing, not worry about childcare, and never do any of your own housework. She knows too, that partly for this reason, living out there is a trap. Coming “home” is a shock, even when home is Honolulu.
I met several far less admirable Westerners stuck in Central America in the 1990s. Young Westerners flock to Guatemala, Mexico, Belize; why not? Weather is great, life looks easy, freelance work for moderately-educated English-speakers not hard to pick up; luxury as good as free of charge, and themselves liberated from pressures to build a dull, more lucrative career, with or without acquiring children on the way. If English teaching, or whatever, gets boring, small businesses serving budget tourists (cafes, hostels, guided tours) can evolve and run satisfactorily on virtual peanuts for years. But eventually youth evaporates, children get older, and the prospect of selling up any minimal acquired assets to fund a return in middle-age to a land of hard currency becomes a practical impossibility. Better just to stay put in paradise, and hope no pressing hospital bills imminent. In the meantime, paradise has palled a bit.
Ann Dunham did much better than this. She was a committed professional, and got to know rural Indonesia as very few foreigners did. I am assuming she left an admirable legacy out there, in terms of microfinance for village craftsmen and women. But the parallels remain. Her high-flying banker mother back in Honolulu paid for her children’s private education and, ultimately, Ann’s medical expenses, though they could not save her. Ann was lucky – and so were her children – that she was an only child.