Barack Obama’s memoir ends with a homecoming

by Jerry Waxler

I finished Barack Obama’s “Dreams from my father.” I had been concerned earlier in the book that his emphasis on ideas might dull the edge of his memoir. So it was with some surprise when I got to the last third of the book, and found him shifting away from ideas, and switching into pure storytelling mode. That is a fascinating literary device. I wonder sometimes how conscious an author is of such stylistic development, transforming from his style in the beginning, a memoir mixed with an essay, into a strictly story telling style at the end. In any case, it worked, and I found that the ending was quite satisfying.

What impressed me about this story was that it was a Homecoming. Homecomings are the classic ending of the Hero’s Journey. This idea of homecoming turns up a lot in stories, but each story has its own spin on what Homecoming means. In the Odyssey, Ulysses really returned to his ancestral home. In the first Star Wars, Luke Skywalker came “home” to Princess Leah, who later turned out to be his sister. So it was a return to his “true home.” Obama’s homecoming also has an interesting twist. It was not the home he was born in, but the place his African father was born. When you have roots in more than one place, where is your home? It’s a question all travelers and transplants face. I think Obama raised this question beautifully, and without answering it, let the story do his work for him, by showing us what it was like for him to visit his African family, and let us feel it, see it, hear it ourselves through the art of storytelling.

In Alex Haley’s famous novel and mini-series, Roots, the author went back to Africa to look for his own roots buried in history, highlighting the longing and the frustration to see backwards through time, through layers of generations, and lost history. This attempt to find deep, ancestral roots has universal elements, as many of us wonder where we came from, and can’t ever quite scratch that itch. Take me for example. My grandparents fled Russia during the pogroms, a horrible period in Jewish history, in which Russian thugs and militia pillaged Jewish towns, a sort of state-sanctioned vigilante movement to terrorize Jews. When my grandparents came over to this country, they went through the Ellis Island immigration process, and some clerk on Ellis Island gave them an English spelling for their Cyrillic name. In their case it was Waxler, in others Wexler, Wachsler, Wechsler. Who knows what the original name was? Over time, the area where they left was subjected to the Russian Revolution, Stalin’s and Hitler’s massacres, and the German invasion, shrouding my ancestry deep in the fog of history. But I still wish I knew what it was like, who those people were, how they lived.

In Obama’s case, unlike the vast majority of African Americans, he had a chance to actually visit the land of his African father. That is fascinating! Obama’s life represents the cross roads of black and white, African and American. What a GREAT story. When he meets his own extended biological family, he acts as a sort of representative to explore the tragedy of black ancestors being kidnapped from African villages, forcibly resettled, and then put in forced labor for a couple of hundred years to help other people succeed. We can’t change the past, but hopefully through the telling and sharing of the story, we can empathize, learn, grow together and heal.

I don’t know Obama’s future as a politician. But I do know that by opening a window into his own experience, he has helped me grow richer in understanding. By sharing his story, he has already fulfilled one of the roles of a leader.

Click here to read the first part of my review of Dreams from My Father.

4 thoughts on “Barack Obama’s memoir ends with a homecoming

  1. “memoir mixed with an essay, into a strictly story telling style”

    This observation intrigues me. Your review made me want to read the book.

    Homecoming – I was just in Georgia doing research on my own memoir. And I saw people I had not seen in 40 years. It felt like a homecoming in so many ways. And all connected to memory.

    Thanks for sharing the pieces of your Ellis Island history. It’s fascinating what it means to each of us to be able to go home again.

    Saw your site on The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing. We are a writing community and practice blog, red Ravine.

  2. Hi QuoinMonkey,

    Thanks for your comment. It was great visiting your blogging community, I have added it to my blogroll. It’s so intriguing to be able to reach across geographical distance and find like minded people out in the internet space. Creating a community at a distance seems to me to be the most exciting new aspect of the 21st century, and I’m glad to be experiencing it with you and other writers. We all have stories to tell. Blogs give us the space and the opportunity to tell them. Happy blogging, writing, and community building!


  3. Dear Jerry,
    I have been scrolling from one review to another on your site, unable to stop reading. Your style is engaging and warm, and you draw me into what i guess you would call essays by your personal examples and sharing how you feel and think. I see that you pay attention to the various forms and styles that writers use to convey their experience, such as story form vs. essay, which reminds us all to pay more attention to how we are shaping our writing.
    I don’t know when you wrote the review of Obama’s book, but now it has an even deeper meaning to us as a country. It is important to understand his roots, and to read the words that were written long before he probably even thought of being president. This book was the reason I became interested in him as a candidate, and I thought the end of the book was one of the most beautiful passages of stream of consciousness writing I have read in a long time.

  4. Thank you so much for your kind assessment of my essays and book reviews. Your comment comes more than a year and a half after I wrote my material, which makes me happy to see that it still has value for you, and also because when I wrote it, I did not know we would have come this far to see Obama as the president elect. I too found his explanation of his life rewarding, and felt a great empathy and respect for the coming of age that brought Obama on a journey of self-discovery.


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