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Extraordinary, Ordinary People


Your parents gave up a lot for you over the years.

From the start, your mother gave her body over to you and nurtured you. Your father taught you, and mom guided you (and vice versa). They put a roof over your head, food in your belly, toys on the floor, and memories in your heart.

Author Condoleezza Rice’s parents did that and more. In the new book “Extraordinary, Ordinary People,” (c.2010, Crown Archetype, $27 / $31 Canada. 342 pages, includes index) you’ll read about how they instilled a love of learning in their daughter’s life.

Descended from slaves but also possessing Italian lineage, Condoleezza Rice was born in Alabama, well before the Civil Rights Movement.

Perhaps because her teacher-parents married late in life, Rice (whose name means “with sweetness”) was raised an only child, and a precocious one at that. She claims to have been “elected” president of her family at age three. By age four, she was having “theological debates” with her father, who was also a Presbyterian minister. Rice entered second grade early, and dreamed of a career as a concert pianist or an ice skater.

At age 15, Rice was allowed to start college, even though tuition for school was a sacrifice for her parents: They once told a colleague that a mortgage wasn’t possible because “Condoleezza is our house.” Later, when Rice realized that her talents weren’t on par with that of others, she gave up dreams of skating and piano and admitted that she didn’t know what she wanted.

Disappointed, disheartened, and disagreeing with her parents over her indecision in the middle of her junior year of college, Condoleezza Rice “wandered into an introductory course on international politics ….”

Like many autobiographies these days, “Extraordinary, Ordinary People” has good parts and bad.

Author and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice presents her readers with a fascinating insight on racism in the years before the Civil Rights Movement, and on many important national milestones in equality. Her family was friends with Stokely Carmichael and other change-makers, as well as future politicians and world leaders. I liked this genteel and erudite examination of those tumultuous years and the people who shaped them.

But everybody in Condoleezza-land is sunshiny-happy. All the men are tall and wise, and all the women are beautiful. The only real strife comes from “The White Man” (as she claims her parents called “them”), and that repeatedly took me aback. Yes, much of this book is set in the South in the pre-Civil-Rights years, which inherently gives it a righteous lopsidedness. But, perhaps because Rice admits that her family had little personal contact with Whites early on, I was surprised that so many negative race-specific memories were included in this book by a woman who made her living by working with people of all nationalities.

Does the good in “Extraordinary, Ordinary People” outweigh the bad? That depends on your level of tolerance in autobiographies. If you want a story with warts, don’t look here. But if you’re interested in a different kind of political tale, you’ll be glad to give up some time for this one.