I picked this book up in a charity shop for 50p. I don’t know when I’ve got better value from a 50p piece.
Barack Obama wrote this autobiography more than a decade before he became President of the USA. This makes it particularly interesting, in that it was written quite a bit before the peak of the writer’s career and gives an insight into how Obama thought of himself before his political success.
It was written during his time in law school, after he had been elected as the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review. His election caused a bit of media interest, although he describes the sales of his book at that time as “underwhelming”. All that has changed since he became America’s first black president, and the book has since become a no.1 bestseller internationally.
Barack Obama was brought up in Hawaii, the son of a white American mother and a Kenyan father. His parents separated shortly after he was born and divorced a couple of years later. Barack’s father went back to Kenya and came back to Hawaii to visit his son only once, when Barack was ten years old. After her divorce from Barack’s father, his mother remarried an Indonesian man and took Barack to Indonesia, where he lived between the ages of six and ten. When he reached ten years old, for the sake of his education, he was sent back to Hawaii to live with his maternal grandparents.
As the title suggests, this book is very much concerned with Barack Obama’s relationship with his father, and although it describes Barack’s own life history, he makes repeated attempts to get to the bottom of the type of man his father was. All the way through the book, I felt I was on a journey with him to achieve this aim. It must have been a confusing start in life for the young Barack, and right up until the last page there’s a sense of him having agonised over his identity throughout his life.
In some ways it’s a tragic tale, in that Barack Obama never got the opportunity to know his father personally (his father died in a car crash when Barack was 21), but it’s also a story of hope and optimism. His need for information drove the adult Barack to Kenya to try and discover his roots, and it was there that he finally began to put the pieces of the puzzle together.
He discovered he had an extended family of half-siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents he had known little or nothing about before. They all seemed to know about him, however, since his father had spoken with pride of his son in Hawaii. (Barack and his father did communicate by letter after the visit to Hawaii when Barack was ten, but that petered out after a while.) He was warmly welcomed into the Kenyan family and it was this openness of his relatives, I think, that allowed him to find some sort of peace with himself.
Barack Obama’s story itself is amazing enough, but what particularly struck me as I read the book was how well written it was. I’m no expert on American political autobiographies but I expect the recommendation from Joe Klein of Time magazine is spot on: “This may be the best-written memoir ever produced by an American politician”.