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Growing up Obama

A remarkable biography tracing the effect of nature, nurture and environment on the US president

books Updated: Jun 22, 2012 18:43 IST

Barack Obama: The Making Of The Man

David Maraniss

Atlantic books; represented by Penguin books india

Rs 899 pp 643

If there is one mind the world could peek into, it would choose Barack Obama’s. David Maraniss travels a fair distance up the US president’s bloodline to get a fix on what shapes the Obama personality. An ambitious project, the journalist from Washington Post executes it with finesse. Barack Obama: The Making of the Man ends when the 27-year-old enters Harvard Law School in 1988. It begins on a Thanksgiving evening in 1926, when Ruth Armour Dunham buys some strychnine for the dog in Topeka, Kansas, takes it to her husband’s garage and drinks it.

Her son Stanley, the grandfather of a future president, told this story to his wife and daughter, then to his grandchildren and anyone else who would listen that he discovered the body. It is one of the several myths surrounding Obama’s ancestry that Maraniss demolishes with a reporter’s elan.

Putting together Barack Hussein Obama is a series of biographical sketches of the Luo grandfather Hussein Onyango who converted to Islam but practised it sparingly, a father who met his son only once after divorcing his wife and died in an accident while driving drunk, a mother with two failed marriages, two children, two college degrees and a yen for anthropology. The lesser cast is equally fleshed out in the grandparents with whom Obama lived during his schooldays in Honolulu and in the Indonesian stepfather. The history trail leads across continents to the El Dorado oil boom, the laying of the Ugandan railway, Boeing’s B-29 bomber line during World War 2, the Mau Mau insurrection in Kenya, Hawaii a decade after Pearl Harbour, Sukarno’s year of living dangerously, and the maelstrom of Chicago’s African American politics.

“The supposition that Obama is a self-creation is inadequate. One can see the imprint of his mother and maternal grandmother in almost every aspect of his character.

That is nurture. The effects of his childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia are also readily evident in the adult Obama, his uncommon combination of cool remove and adaptability. That is environment. As for nature, there are parts of his personality that can be traced clearly to his father. Obama is best understood not only by how his family and environment molded him but how he reshaped himself in reaction to them.”

In conversation with Maraniss, Obama admitted he had to dig beneath the surface of people to get a sense of his own identity. “The only way my life makes sense is if regardless of culture, race, religion, tribe, there is this commonality, these essential human truths and hopes that are universal.”

Obama himself has tried to confront the plurality of his existence, and the unifying motif, in his memoir Dreams from My Father. It examines the questions America asked about him. Obama is black and white, so why call him only black? And, from the other side of the divide, is he black enough?

The recurrent theme in Obama’s life is a determination to avoid being trapped. Obama has risen above his multi-cultural and multi-racial origins, above the instability of a nomadic existence in fractured families, and the likelihood of rejection in American race politics.

Barack Obama:

The Making of the Man makes for interesting reading, not merely because the subject is so fascinatingly different. The scale of research in America, Africa and Asia would have been daunting for a less intrepid reporter, but Maraniss welcomes the opportunity. What really sets this journalistic effort apart though is the author’s belief in a contradiction that he never intends to resolve. Life is serendipity yet there are connections which, when exposed, lead us to something greater than the sum of its parts. To establish this, Maraniss could not have chosen a better personality than Barack Obama.