In a culture of "helicopter parenting," in which mothers are tempted to manage every moment of their children's lives to ensure future success, it's peculiar that no one seemed interested in Barack Obama's mother when his political career began to skyrocket. Maybe the anomaly of his absentee, Kenyan father was so enticing that no one gave much thought to the oddly named Stanley Ann Dunham. No one, that is, except Janny Scott.

In 2008, Scott left her job as a New York Times reporter to research the life of then Senator Obama's late mother. She interviewed hundreds of Dunham's family members, colleagues, and friends. She traveled all over the world, tracing her subject's journeys. Scott's meticulous research shows; hers is an absorbing book that details Dunham's rich, disordered life.

Having read Scott's book, the fact that Dunham has been summarized—perhaps most often by the president himself—as "a white woman from Kansas" seems comically hollow. It was with much more care that Scott chose the title A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother for her biography. Scott said that if she had used the adjective unconventional in the title, "some people would have thought it was a pejorative. Others would have thought it was high praise."

"Singular," she wrote, "is neutral. But there's no mistaking its meaning: This person was remarkable, one of a kind."

A family friend of the Dunhams described the milieu in which Dunham grew up as a "Leave it to Beaver … kind of society." Indeed, Dunham gave birth to the son who would be known as "Barry" when Leave it to Beaver was still on the air. (She stopped using her unusual first name after high school.)

Ann Dunham, however, was the anti-June Cleaver. In 1960, ...

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