This is a story about a girl named Stan.
David Maraniss' Barack Obama: The Story (Simon & Schuster, $33) might have been better titled Stanley Ann Dunham: Her Story.
Stanley Ann Dunham was the president's mother, and she is the central character in Madison native Maraniss' 600-page epic, which ends long before her son enters politics, much less the Oval Office.
If you're disappointed by this, don't be. Read the book. Stanley Ann Dunham's unlikely, uneven, unconventional weaving together of a life is fascinating in itself. But it is significant in history because along for much of that weaving was a little boy and young man who was shaped by following her through her world, and now that man shapes our world as the leader of its most powerful nation.
Barack Obama's namesake, his father, appears, but relatively briefly, probably playing more of a role in the book than he did in his son's life. The senior Obama is portrayed as brilliant (stopping just short of earning a doctorate in economics from Harvard in three years), driven, charismatic, but also arrogant and abusive both psychologically and physically. And, as he grew older, all of his less endearing traits were magnified by a deepening relationship with alcohol. Maraniss suggests it was lucky for his son that Barack Obama Sr. stayed out his life.
The real story is Stanley Ann, named, some say, after her father Stanley Dunham, though Maraniss advances a more or less convincing theory that it was really her mother, Madelyn, who named her after a character in a B movie played by Bette Davis. Madelyn Payne Dunham of small-town Kansas longed for sophistication. Bette Davis personified it, and the film in which Davis played a woman named Stanley seemed to embody the bold breaking loose of convention that Madelyn wanted and that was passed along to her daughter.
Parenthetically, Madelyn Payne Dunham played a small role in Madison's connection to the historic 2008 campaign of her grandson. Near the end of the campaign, Barack Obama canceled what would have been a massive Madison rally so he could return to Hawaii and be at her side in her final days.
In Maraniss' book, Madelyn's grandson does not even make an appearance until chapter six, and then he's mostly tagging along as his mother marries and divorces his father, moves from Seattle to Hawaii and back to Seattle, and then goes to Jakarta, where she marries an Indonesian man and has with him a daughter, Barack's half-sister. Along the way, Dunham acquires a college degree and works a series of academic odd jobs on her way to a Ph.D. in anthropology.
The senior Barack Obama is eventually killed in a car accident fueled by alcohol, but by that point it hardly matters. His contribution to history is his genes, all nature, no nurture. The nurturing role belonged mostly to Stanley Ann.
Maraniss shows us in intricate detail how the personality of the president was shaped. How a young boy of high intelligence and good humor adapted to his constantly changing and sometimes odd surroundings, learning, absorbing, finding a way to get along and to blend in, but also staying apart, since he never knew what was around the next corner with his footloose mom.
He acquired a lifelong habit of holding some of himself back, watching what played out in front of him and, to use Maraniss' central theme, "avoiding the traps" of life.
Barack Obama may be one of the least qualified men ever to occupy his office. His experience on the national stage amounts to four years as a junior U.S. senator. And yet, thanks to his mother, there were few who understood the world better.
His face is a map of the world. Maraniss reports that Obama's heritage is 50% Lou (an African tribe), 37.4% English, 4.4% German, 3.125% Irish, 3.125% Scottish, 1.56% Welsh, 0.195% Swiss, and 0.097% French. Maraniss proves conclusively that the president is not a Muslim, but reveals he is French. For Rush Limbaugh conservatives, which is worse?
More important than Obama's genetic makeup is his life experience. Not only did he grow up in Indonesia and Hawaii, but he also grew up amid diversity in both places, which brought him into casual, daily contact with Africans, Asians, Natives and Caucasians, people of all kinds of ethnic variations and political and social differences.
What he did not experience in his early life is mainland, American-style racism. Growing up in places that were diverse, he never had to confront his identity as a black man until his college years. There are no slaves in the Obama family tree, and he missed most of the tumultuous civil rights struggle because of his youth and the physical distance from the mainland.
There is an amusing section on the future president's more than casual acquaintance with marijuana as a high school student in Hawaii. I won't ruin the fun, but if you get the e-book, search for "Choom Gang," "Total Absorption" (the opposite of not inhaling) and "Roof Hits." Enough said.
Even when Barry, which is how he was known, finally made it to the mainland as a college freshman, he chose elite Occidental College in Los Angeles, a diverse environment in a sheltered section of the city that gave him virtually no taste of the typical experience of blacks in America.
In fact, one of his Oxy college friends said that Barry, who was starting to refer to himself as Barack in part to reconnect to his black roots, decided to transfer after his sophomore year to Columbia in New York so that he could "discover blackness in America."
What hits home in Maraniss' book is how race was, for Barack Obama, primarily an intellectual journey of study and self-discovery. He had to discover his blackness.
This sets him apart from the dominant African American experience, and it accounts for some of the reluctance on the part of veteran civil rights advocates like Jesse Jackson to embrace his candidacy early on. The feeling was apparently mutual. As a student at Columbia, Obama saw Jackson speak at a rally and came back unimpressed.
The argument can be made that Barack Obama, raised by a white mother and white grandparents, is half white genetically and more than that culturally. But the reality of race in America is that skin color trumps everything. It is not, still and sadly, the content of your character that shapes how you are perceived, at least initially.
This is a central theme of Obama's memoir, Dreams From My Father, which Maraniss dissects in his own book. In what is probably the memoir's most memorable scene, one Obama referred to often in the 2008 campaign, his white, Kansas-bred grandmother expresses fear of a black man she encounters at a bus stop simply because he is black.
That incident happened while the most important person in his life, his mother, was off doing her graduate research in Indonesia. During this period and for the rest of Obama's life, Stanley Ann Dunham makes only cameo appearances in Maraniss' book, but he leaves little doubt that the choices she made in her life, and for her son, set him on a trajectory that made him the man he became.
And even in death in 1995, at the age of 52, she had an impact on her son. Her struggle with cancer was a theme he used often as he argued for a health care overhaul.
Most of the press about Maraniss' book has focused on the discrepancies between what he found and what Obama wrote in Dreams From My Father, or on the revelations of college girlfriends. Neither strikes me as all that important compared to the narrative surrounding Stanley Ann. Maraniss forgives most of the discrepancies as poetic license that Obama admits to at the start of his memoir. He was trying to write literature as much as a factual account of his life, and he didn't try to deceive.
As for the girlfriends' accounts of a charismatic but ultimately distant lover, they make for interesting reading. But his character had already been shaped by his experiences with his mother and grandparents. By the time we meet the girlfriends, they are reporting on what we already know.
If the book has a flaw, it's that there is too much of it. For example, did I really need to learn that Obama's grandmother's high school Latin class met on the second floor of the southeast corner of the school? Or what Obama's phone number was when he was a student at Columbia in 1981? (It was 401-2857.)
The book also wanders into countless narrative cul de sacs, detailing the lives, and sometimes the deaths, of people who have only a tangential relationship to Obama. We get pages of detail on the funeral of Tom Mboya, a Kenyan political operative and an important figure in Obama's father's life, but a man the younger Obama never met.
But in the end, when a reader is in the hands of a skilled writer it's a small complaint to say that there's too much good writing.
Maraniss is a reporter and editor for The Washington Post. He grew up in Madison and spends his summers here, where he wrote much of the book.
Whatever else you've got going this summer, it's worth your time to read Barack Obama: The Story, if only to marvel at the twists and spellbinding turns in the life of the girl named Stanley who shaped - almost entirely for the better - the personality of the most powerful human being on the planet.
As Obama wrote, "It was my mother's fundamental faith - in the goodness of people and in the ultimate value of this brief life we've been given - that channeled [my] ambitions."
Dave Cieslewicz is the former mayor of Madison. He blogs as Citizen Dave at TheDailyPage.com.