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Over the past few months, I have been drawn to biographies and autobiographies. In each, I closed the cover having learned important messages about the everyday and the extraordinary. BECOMING by Michelle Obama is no different.

In FASCISM: A Warning --- not strictly an autobiography, but certainly fueled by facing fascism as a child and then years of defending democracy, peace and justice --- Madeleine Albright shares a cautionary tale regarding the prejudices that are on the rise in the United States. Michelle Obama speaks to these same prejudices, encountered many times throughout her life. On a much lighter note, in NEW FRED, Fred Knowles humorously tells the story of losing passion in one’s career, and then the road to rediscovering oneself and finding a true love for work again. Michelle faces the realization that being a lawyer is not for her, and during the presidential campaign again finds herself looking for her voice and her place in the new administration. In Scott Harrison’s THIRST, the self-proclaimed party animal and author transforms on the pages, becoming a man bent on a mission to create one of the greatest non-profits to come along in the last two decades, and in doing so he reminds us that obstacles make us stronger, that we all have a role in making the impossible possible. Michelle, too, saw the walls that had to be broken down in order to move forward her agenda as First Lady.

Michelle’s memoir begins on the South Side of Chicago, her hometown, where she lived with her mother, father and brother Craig in a one-bedroom apartment on the second floor of her aunt’s house. From an early age, her parents instilled in her a rare independence, allowing her to make decisions for herself and trusting that she would make the right ones. She grew up in a large, extended loving family, did extremely well in school, and followed her brother to Princeton University. She recalls her youth with great fondness. Stories of family holidays, school, even her first kiss remind us of her very humble, very ordinary beginnings.

It was at Princeton that Michelle saw firsthand the inequity of the haves and have nots. And she felt the sense of “otherness” acutely, as one of only a few African American students on the campus. But a steadfast Michelle remained focused on her goals, which paid off as it took her to Harvard Law School and then to a top legal firm in Chicago.

"With humor, intelligence, faith and just a bit of hindsight, BECOMING is the wonderful, inspiring story of an American upbringing, a romance, and the chance for an average girl to become a voice for the American people."

Enter Barack Obama, a rising star --- an intern in great demand, the first African American man to hold the editor’s position at the Harvard Law Review. Michelle describes how he was late to their first meeting; she would soon learn that he ran to his own clock, that even his gait had a thoughtful pace all its own. A friendship developed first and then a romance, but only after she first tried to set him up with someone else. She recounts how his critical mind revealed itself to her on a daily basis, and how she learned that he was destined for more than a desk in a high-powered law firm.

In the early years of their relationship, they individually and together encountered several challenges. Michelle lost her father after years of fighting MS, along with her college friend to cancer. And she lost her desire to be a lawyer chasing a big paycheck, craving something more meaningful. Barack, too, chose not to go the route of billable hours, and signed with a firm that was motivated by public service.

Once married, their relationship was tested by Barack’s ability to “swerve” and Michelle’s desire to stay in her lane. In a revealing passage, she shares that they sought marriage counseling, and it was there that she accepted Barack’s schedule, his need for space and time to think.

They were tested again after a miscarriage and infertility treatments, and then by Barack’s burgeoning political career that often saw them separated for many days at a time. Michelle is surprisingly candid when she offers her early hopes that he doesn’t pursue a political career and her thoughts that he would not be elected. At the same time, she is supportive and proud of what he wants to accomplish, and begins to recognize that he has the potential to be a true force for change. Barack is fiercely intellectual and committed, determined to do better for the United States and its citizens.

Michelle is frank in her description of the 2008 presidential campaign and election. The time was, by her own account, both painful and invigorating. Her very real fear for the security of her children, herself and Barack is felt in numerous stories of events where they all felt exposed or when her husband tried to normalize the growing buzz and attention surrounding them as the campaign proceeded. The scrutiny was often overwhelming, and only multiplied after the historic election that made Barack Obama the first African American President of the United States.

With the grace she became known for, Michelle adjusted to White House living, with the assistance of former first ladies Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton. Her reflections on their kindness, even in spite of party differences on the part of Mrs. Bush, shine as a highlight of the adjustment period.

The lessons of independence Michelle learned from her parents in the South Side upbringing served her well as she sought to secure the issues that would become the hallmark of her tenure as First Lady. She characterizes wanting to use her platform to show that she was just an ordinary person thrown into extraordinary circumstances and the opportunity to make a difference. She chose to tackle issues of education, advocacy for women and young girls, healthier lifestyles for all (which led to her famous White House garden), and support for military families. The White House years saw even more transitions and challenges, trying to raise two young girls in the ever-present spotlight of the entire world while attempting to maintain her voice and mission. But she succeeded, through two terms, to be her own force.

What Michelle doesn’t do in BECOMING, where she doesn’t go, is mock the presidency that followed her husband’s. She decides not to treat the incoming president and First Lady the way that she and Barack had often been treated. She maintains good taste in describing the next transition and even her offer to serve as a mentor to Melania Trump. Ever diplomatic and hopeful, she chooses instead to focus on the work the country still needs to do and her slide back into ordinary life.

With humor, intelligence, faith and just a bit of hindsight, BECOMING is the wonderful, inspiring story of an American upbringing, a romance, and the chance for an average girl to become a voice for the American people.

Reviewed by Roberta O'Hara on November 28, 2018

by Michelle Obama

  • Publication Date: March 2, 2021
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Crown
  • ISBN-10: 1524763144
  • ISBN-13: 978-1524763145