The President-Elect of the United States, Barack Obama, did not know much about his father. In fact, he spent very little personal time with his dad—just a brief encounter during a Christmas visit when the young Barack was in elementary school. Dreams from My Father is a sincere journey into a man’s thoughts about where he came from, the absent man who shaped his past, the people in his life who lifted him up, and the discovery of who he might be.
It’s important to stress that this is a candid book. Political books involving personal stories are usually very circumspect. The politician-author most often meanders around their biography, picking up heroic or patriotic details when convenient. It’s also rare to find a political memoir that is written by the subject. The politician usually finds a ghost writer or biographer. Obama is the rare exception. He uses highly skilled prose and deftly shapes a stirring narrative that takes the reader from Obama’s family history in Kansas, to the distant shores of his childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia, his college education in Los Angeles and New York City, his early work in Chicago, and eventually Kenya, the place of his father’s birth.
This book is very little about Obama’s politics or his destiny to become an elected Senator or President. Instead, the author wants to unravel the mystery of his identity. What does it mean to not know your father? Who am I supposed to be if I’m half black and half white? What do I believe is important or gives meaning to life? The fact that Obama felt unrooted led to aimless pursuits (including bad grades, reckless behavior and drug use). Though, it wasn’t as if he spent his time staring at the pounding Hawaiian surf pondering his history and the nature of man. He did feel loss or longing or wonder, but it took him many years, and many miles traveled, to grasp some sense of what was for so many years shapeless.
This is a powerful book, in part, because we know the outcome. A boy growing up without his father, raised on domestic and foreign lands, living a wandering but thoughtful life ends up finding purpose and reshapes history. It is also a sharp and clear analysis of a man coming to terms with a complicated history. Dreams from My Father is a fine memoir from an unlikely source (a politician) whose history is now a small part of our own American journey.
(Final note: This post is not a political endorsement. It is simply a suggestion to read a good book. If you’re at all interested in reading about John McCain, Faith of My Fathers is a fascinating book. The recent election may have been the best literary presidential race in history.)