Brooklyn Bugle Book Club: A Singular Woman by Janny Scott

July 3, 2011

Ann Dunham was an anthropologist with a Ph.D. who spent most of her professional life working on microfinance, cottage industries, and other development programs helping poor rural folk in Indonesia. She was also Barack Obama’s mother, and A Singular Woman is Janny Scott’s fascinating new biography of her.

Dunham, who was born in 1942, lived a complicated life that was cut short much too young. She married, first, an African and second, an Indonesian. Dunham left college a rather muddled young woman, uncertain of her place in the world, and already the mother of a young child (Barack Obama was born when she was still 18). She traveled far from her children for a large part of the time they were growing up. She was curious and open to other cultures, and she made the most of her jobs and life abroad.

Dunham developed into an accomplished middle-aged woman who was very successful in her last couple of jobs, and Scott describes that growth quite effectively. She also illustrates Dunham’s meticulous working methods. With bankers, Dunham was “professional, methodical, and not the least bit eccentric.” But with villagers, with whom she could speak in Indonesian, she was empathetic and genuinely curious. “To her young research assistants, [Dunham] emphasized accuracy, rigor, patience, fairness, and not judging by appearances. ‘Don’t conclude before you understand,’ [one of them] recalled Ann saying. ‘After you understand, don’t judge.'”

Ann Dunham also sounds like a woman with a wonderful sense of humor whose friends loved her dearly. She was sadly overwhelmed by finances and illness at the end of her life – she died in 1995 just weeks before her 53d birthday. Scott does a terrific job showing how Dunham’s parents and upbringing shaped her, and suggests how she in turn shaped her oldest child. I would have liked to know more about Indonesia’s complex post-colonial history, but I can also see how including that information would have made for a much longer book. That aside, this is a book worth reading even if you are not a fan of the 44th president.

Do you agree with Scott that Ann Dunham is a fascinating character in her own right? Discuss in the comments.

Janny Scott on NPR’s Fresh Air

Read an excerpt from A Singular Woman (via NPR)

A Singular Woman
Janny Scott
Riverhead Books, $26.95, 374 pages

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