Book 3 on my March to 100 for 2019 – Michelle Obama: Becoming – The memoirs of a former First Lady – with the usual pros and cons of memoirs.
Autobiographical memoirs are not my usual reading. While I find them to be an interesting peek into the life of a famous or influential person, the autobiographical nature results in blindspots for the author.
And a political figure is particularly fraught because supporters of that person take criticism as a political point, and opponents take any compliment as the same. Yet, I always admired the way Mrs. Obama conducted herself as First Lady—from the projects she championed to the way she raised her children in as private a way as possible—and decided to tackle the book. So, Kevlar vest on because I both liked and disliked the book which should upset both extremes.
The first 2/3’s is a great read for anyone, regardless of your political persuasion. Her tales of childhood in South Chicago show both her challenges, economic and race, as well as her opportunities, a strong family background and connections. Her love and pride for her parents particularly shines through. Her father, despite a long battle with MS, never missed a day of work. The story of him nearly too weak to get into his van to drive to work was heartbreaking. And the story of her mother going to battle against her incompetent second grade teacher was inspiring.
The arc of her political life starts coming into focus when she attends Whitney M. Young High School, Chicago’s first magnet school, and befriends Santita Jackson, the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s eldest daughter. Her educational career includes Princeton University followed by Harvard Law which landed her at the prestigious Chicago law firm, Sidley & Austin, where she met her future husband.
The story of her love affair with the young Barack Obama was well-told. Funny anecdotes highlighted their differences and the qualities that attracted them to each other. And those stories also laid the groundwork for the political career and eventual presidency. I found most of the political stories mundane and boring, but the personal stories woven into their midst kept me interested.
My favorite part of the last 1/3 of the book were her stories about the White House, her own projects there, and her protective nature toward her two daughters inside the overwhelming Secret Service protective bubble. She wanted the girls to grow up as normally as it was possible in such a unique world. She talks about the warm reception she received from Laura Bush, the outgoing First Lady, and how the Bush daughters made a special visit to show the Obama daughters the fun side of the White House. “There was a kindness running beneath all of it, a genuine love of country that I will always appreciate and admire.”
Mrs. Obama also speaks warmly of the other First Ladies, specifically mentioning that Hillary Clinton, Rosalynn Carter, and Nancy Reagan all reached out being “warm and offering support.”
Ah, but I hinted at the cons of the book. My frustration begins with the story of meeting, with her daughters, Nelson Mandela about 90% of the way through the book. “Surviving twenty-seven years of deprivation and isolation as a prisoner, having had many of his friends tortured and killed under the apartheid regime, Mandela managed to negotiate—rather than fight—with government leaders, brokering a miraculously peaceful transition to a true democracy in South Africa… “
In a fictional novel, this is the point where our Hero spots her tragic flaw, changes as a person, and goes on to greatness. Instead, the book devolves into bitterness over the 2016 election.
Just one page after the Mandela story comes this quote, “The Republican Congress was devoted to Barack’s failure above all else… Their own power came first.” No mention of embracing Mandela’s lesson. No realization that the “Resistance” toward the next President could be described the same way.
And worse, over the last of the book, there is no story of her warmly welcoming Melania Trump, like Laura Bush and the other former First Ladies of both parties had done for Mrs. Obama. Nor did she share tales of her daughters showing Baron the fun side of their living quarters. Not a single word of empathy was written for a woman who shares the commonality of wanting to raise her son away from the prying eyes of the world. In fact, at the inauguration, she says, “I stopped even trying to smile.”
I found myself wishing I had stopped reading at the Nelson Mandela story.
So, sadly, my answer as to who will enjoy reading this book falls along the partisan lines dividing everything else in our country. Those on the left will love it and ignore (perhaps, not even acknowledge) the flaws. The other side will see only the negative and fail to hear the uplifting stories about family, love, and accomplishment.
And the rest of us, like everything else, will fall in the middle.
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