A free­ing memoir

In ‘Be­com­ing,’ Michelle Obama de­tails her life – from a child­hood in Chicago through her post-White House ad­just­ment

The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - BOOKS - By Michelle Obama Crown 429 pages; $32.50 • LAU­RIE HERTZEL

By now, much has been writ­ten about the newsier, juicier parts of Michelle Obama’s memoir, Be­com­ing – her anger at Don­ald Trump for pro­mot­ing the “birther” non­sense, for in­stance, or her de­spair on the night of the 2016 elec­tion.

“I un­der­stood what was prob­a­bly hap­pen­ing, but I wasn’t ready to face it,” she writes, and so she got up and went to bed.

But there is much more to this book, which is not a po­lit­i­cal memoir. Michelle Obama has never run for of­fice and makes it clear that she al­most cer­tainly never will.

Be­com­ing is a warm, in­ti­mate comin­gof-age story of a strong-minded girl who grew up to be­come one of the most pow­er­ful and in­flu­en­tial black women in the US. It is filled with de­ter­mi­na­tion, love of fam­ily and many sub­tle and not-so-sub­tle lessons about be­ing fe­male, black, and black and fe­male in Amer­ica.

She talks openly about things that many peo­ple are un­com­fort­able dis­cussing. (Race! It is so hard, still, to talk about race.) She writes about what it feels like to be the only black per­son in a room filled with white peo­ple. (At Prince­ton, she says, she and the few other African-Amer­i­can stu­dents were “poppy seeds in a bowl of rice.”)

She writes about how, as a black per­son, she knows she has to work harder and be bet­ter pre­pared than her white col­leagues. She writes about how her high-school coun­selor told her she wasn’t Prince­ton ma­te­rial, and how that dis­missal (“she was telling me to lower my sights”) only made her more res­o­lute to get into the Ivy League.

She also writes about the im­por­tance of strong women in her life – not just her mother and teach­ers, but men­tors and friends. She writes about problems in her mar­riage – her dif­fi­cul­ties get­ting preg­nant, her fights and frus­tra­tions with Barack and how they needed coun­sel­ing to work things out.

The most in­ter­est­ing part of the book is the first half, about grow­ing up in Chicago. Michelle, her brother and their par­ents lived in the top half of a du­plex owned by her mother’s aunt Rob­bie, a piano teacher. Michelle’s fa­ther had hoped at one time to be­come an artist, but with­out money for col­lege (and “no model of what that sort of life looked like”), he joined the army, then took a job tend­ing the boil­ers at the city water plant. He de­vel­oped MS while still a young man and died at 55.

While it’s clear they had lit­tle money, she never de­scribes her child­hood as un­der­priv­i­leged. In­stead, she tells sto­ries and lets read­ers draw their own con­clu­sions. For in­stance, as a child she took piano lessons on Rob­bie’s old piano, and she grew to rec­og­nize mid­dle C be­cause of a crack in the ivory. But when she gave her first recital – on a baby grand piano at Roo­sevelt Univer­sity – she was briefly lost. All the keys were per­fect. How would she know where to be­gin?

She por­trays her ro­mance with Barack Obama as a de­li­cious, sexy love story. Barack crack­les on the page from the very be­gin­ning, when he shows up late for his first meet­ing with her at the law firm where she is to be his men­tor. His rep­u­ta­tion as a bril­liant and gifted lawyer did not im­press her. “In my ex­pe­ri­ence,” she writes, “you put a suit on any half-in­tel­li­gent black man and white peo­ple tended to go bonkers.”

They quickly be­come good friends, but for months she is so un­in­ter­ested in him that she tries to set him up with one of her friends.

The sec­ond half of the book cov­ers ground most of us have lived through – the po­lit­i­cal rise of Barack; Michelle’s in­tense dis­like of pol­i­tics; and the way her life both ex­panded and con­tracted once he was elected.

More in­ter­est­ing than the pol­i­tics are the de­tails of life in the White House, where she couldn’t even open a win­dow (bul­let­proof thick and sealed shut for protection) and where sneaky incog­nito trips to PetS­mart and Tar­get make her feel, briefly, free. And by the end of the book, she is, of course, truly free.

At home alone, no more her­met­i­cally sealed win­dows, no more guards, she pads down­stairs and makes herself some cheese toast. And then, she muses, she might open a win­dow, “so I could feel the spring air – how glo­ri­ous that would be.”

(Star Tri­bune/Min­neapo­lis)

(Kamil Krza­czyn­ski/Reuters)

FORMER FIRST LADY Michelle Obama speaks about her book at a high school in Chicago ear­lier this month.

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