Barack Obama; The Saga Of An American Family

Owing, no doubt, to four years of determined research, David Maraniss’s telling of Obama’s story is peppered with several tidbits that would serve you well in a cocktail conversation. For example, the unexpected fact that many of Obama’s closest friends were Pakistanis, when he was a student. Or maybe that the great man was once a pot-smoker.

However, there is more to the book than just that.

There are several similarities between Maraniss’s Barack Obama and Alex Haley’s legendary saga Roots: The Saga of an American Family. In both the books, the protagonists are on a quest to discover their true identity. More obviously, it is about a family that traces its roots to different corners of the globe … only to surface finally in America. As one shining beacon of hope. In this case, Obama- 44th President of the United States. The first American President of colour. And in this book, Pulitzer-winning journalist Maraniss tells the story of a modern-day Kunta Kinte, digging into the past, to make sense of the present.

The book ends where Obama’s presidentship starts. It was in the early 80s that the politician developed the belief that he could be a leader. But there is no gee whiz moment, as Maraniss points out- it is all attributed it all to a series of seemingly random events in the president’s family history; starting from two generations before his birth. You need to read the entire book, to get a grip of what went into the making of the president.

The biographer pieces together the story with ample aid from a number of sources (230 to be precise, as listed in footnotes)- mainly, two former girlfriends and a roommate, who have allowed Maraniss to use material such as letters and diaries. Obama spent his formative years in Indonesia, Hawai, Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. Interestingly, Kansas has a lot to do with it; the place where the politician’s great great grandmother hanged herself. Decades later, his parents met in a Russian class at the University of Hawaii in 1960. Colourful family histories somehow brought together by the forces of serendipity. The reader is given detailed tours into the life stories of Ann Dunham- Obama’s mother and anthropologist- and the abusive Obama Sr; governmental economist and the inspiration behind Dreams From My Father. And why their lives affected the future president’s own, and helped shaped his character- a brew of detachment, desire to avoid confrontation, and the ability to persuade.

Can a biographer be truly objective? In the course of research and repeated interviews, several biographers are known to lose their sense of purpose, drawn in by the powerful persons they set out to chronicle. David Maraniss must’ve naturally had none of those problems, seeing as to how his (long, long) tome essentially chronicles the lives of Obama’s ancestors. The journalist doesn’t pull back the punches either- especially when he points out (politely) the president’s own memoir Dreams From My Father was in large part a work of fiction.

In all, Barack Obama, the book and the man, is a work of ambition and an undying spirit. A product of randomness.

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