David Maraniss’s “Barack Obama: The Story” was published in 2012. Maraniss is a journalist who won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 1993 while covering Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign and was a Pulitzer finalist in 1996, 2002 and 2004. He is the author of nearly a dozen books including biographies of Bill Clinton, Roberto Clemente and Vince Lombardi.
In addition to thoroughly reviewing Obama’s life through his decision to attend Harvard Law School in 1988, this impressively-researched 571-page biography explores his rich (and famously complex) family heritage in unprecedented detail.
At first glance this book seems to resemble Maraniss’s compelling “First in His Class” covering Bill Clinton’s pre-presidency. But unlike that biography, which covers Clinton’s life through the launch of his presidential campaign, much of this book is focused on the lives of people Obama barely knew and ends when he is just twenty-seven years old – nearly a decade before he entered politics and two decades before he entered the White House.
During his research for this book Maraniss traveled to each of the key places in Obama’s life and heritage including Kenya, Indonesia, Hawaii, Kansas and New York. This allows him to fully flesh out each of the main characters in this multi-generational and multi-cultural portrait: Obama’s elusive and frequently loathsome father, his frustratingly footloose mother, his maternal grandparents, and Obama himself.
Maraniss achieves two objectives by exploring Obama’s family tree in the first half of the book: he examines the external factors which biracial Barack confronted as he came of age and, secondarily, he exposes inconsistencies and inaccuracies in his subject’s 1995 memoir “Dreams from My Father” relating to Obama’s family history.
Maraniss’s writing style demonstrates his talent as a perceptive observer, keen analyst and articulate writer. The review of Barack Obama’s family lineage, however, has a tendency to devolve into a blizzard of names and seemingly trivial details which readers may have a hard time fully absorbing. But while this book does not provide an entirely carefree journey, it does reward the patient reader.
The book’s second half carries Obama from his birth to various parts of the globe before depositing him in Chicago where he worked as a community organizer. This portion of the narrative is more consistently engaging and Maraniss devotes much of it to assembling a richly textured profile – almost a character study – of the future president.
Unfortunately the book ends somewhat abruptly, just as the reader is becoming fully invested in Obama’s persona (and potential). But given the groundwork laid in this book and knowing what awaits the young Obama, it is hard to imagine Maraniss abandoning his subject. A follow-up volume (or two) seems all-but-certain.
Some readers will feel this biography reaches too far back into Obama’s family lineage, chasing too many leads and exploring unnecessary tangents. Others will find coverage of his ancestry fascinating but too detailed and hard to follow. These perspectives have merit and the book requires greater-than-average patience. But it does reveal its full value once the disparate threads of Obama’s life converge in the last chapters.
Overall, “Barack Obama: The Story” provides a robust and well-written introduction to Obama’s ancestry and early life. Anyone seeking a simple narrative of his life will do well to choose another biography. But for readers interested in a front-row seat to Obama’s journey of self-discovery and who can allow the labyrinthine story to unfold, this biography might be close to perfect.
Overall rating: 4¼ stars
Note: Maraniss indicated he may well write a follow-up to this volume – but only once Obama’s book is published and once the Obama library archives become available…