A writer in the White House

Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama

It was such a pleasure reading Dreams From My Father. It doesn’t read like a book written by a politician at all. Barack Obama has the novelist’s touch. How can you put down a book with passages like this?

Three o’clock in the morning. The moon-washed streets empty, the growl of a car picking up speed down a distant road. The revellers would be tucked away by now, paired off or alone, in deep, beer-heavy sleep, Hassan at his new lady’s place – don’t stay up, he had said with a wink. And now just the two of us to wait for the sunrise, me and Billie Holiday, her voice warbling through the darkened room, reaching toward me like a lover.

I’m a fool… to want you.
Such a fool… to want you.

It’s pure magic, Barack Obama describing the night after a college party makes you feel his loneliness as he listens to the music in his room.

He describes winter in Chicago and how it affected his work as a community organizer:

Winter came and the city turned monochrome – black trees against the grey sky above white earth. Night now fell in midafternoon, especially when the snowstorms rolled in, boundless prairie storms that set the sky close to the ground, the city lights reflected against the clouds.

The work was tougher in such weather. Mounds of fine white powder blew through the cracks of my car, down my collar and into the openings in my coat. On rounds of interviews, I never spent enough time in one place to thaw properly, and parking spaces became scarce on the snow-narrowed roads… Attendance at evening meetings became more sporadic; people called at the last minute to say they had the flu or their car won’t start…

To rephrase an old song by Joni Mitchell, he has looked at life from both sides now – as a low-paid community organizer and president of the United States. He knows the people who are struggling to get by. That gives him perspective others may not have.

He has seen the downside of globalization. He knows how it can lift and destroy communities as industries come and go in a constant search for cheaper manpower and lower bottom lines.

He writes about how it disrupts lives. Walking back to his car in a decaying Chicago neighbourhood, he recalls the poverty he had seen as a child in Jakarta. But the poor Indonesians were scratching a living that gave an order to their lives that he finds missing in the Chicago neighbourhood. And it could happen in Indonesia, too, he thinks. He imagines Indonesian workers going to factories now sitting idle 20 years later, the factories abandoned, the businesses relocated to other countries.

Obama draws haunting pen portraits. He encapsulates American history in the story of his grandparents:

They eloped just in time for the bombing of Pearl Harbour, and my grandfather enlisted. And at this point the story quickens in my mind like one of those old movies that show a wall calendar’s pages peeled back faster and faster by invisible hands, the headlines of Hitler and Churchill and Roosevelt spinning wildly to the drone of bombing attacks, the voice of Edward R Murrow and the BBC. I watch as my mother is born at the army base where Gramps is stationed, my grandmother is Rosie the Riveter, working on a bomber assembly line, my grandfather sloshes around in the mud of France, part of Patton’s army.

You get the feeling of watching a Second World War movie.

Dreams From My Father also ends like some romantic movies, with a wedding. Barack marries Michelle. His brother, Roy, proposes a toast.

“To those who are not here with us,” he said.

“And to a happy ending,” I said.

We dribbled our drinks on to the chequered-tile floor. And for that moment, at least, I felt like the luckiest man alive.

There’s an epilogue in the 2004 edition, where Obama describes his first day as a US senator.

But the story is not over yet.

Good luck, Mr President.

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