In 1964, when Condoleezza Rice was 10 years old, she was taken to a drive-through hamburger stand called Jacks, in her ferociously segregated hometown of Birmingham, Ala. The Civil Rights Act had passed just days before, and her parents, John and Angelena Rice, heady with civic and racial liberation, decided to treat their daughter to a hamburger at an establishment from which they had previously been barred.
In prose so spare that it lays bare a child's pain that has endured unhealed into middle age, Ms. Rice writes: "It was nighttime, and as I bit into my hamburger, I told my parents that something tasted funny. Daddy turned on the car light. The bun was filled with onions: nothing else, just onions."
We learn in the book that Ms. Rice could not swim until she was 25. The reason? Bull Connor decided he'd rather shut down Birmingham's public pools than give blacks access, so little Condi was one of thousands of children who were denied the simple pleasures of a swimming pool—and who did not learn to swim. (This, remember, was a city where Santa, at a downtown department store at Christmas time, would only seat white children on his knee.)
We learn also that her father registered as a Republican in his 20s because the Democrats wouldn't register him: He had failed to guess the number of beans in a large jar, a notorious Dixiecrat "civics test" for prospective black voters. Might Ms. Rice have become a Democrat, too, if her father had been admitted to the party? One can only speculate.
Ms. Rice's memoir is full of such raw vignettes, episodes that should jolt our "post-racial" sensibilities and make us thankful for the extent to which America has evolved and civilized itself. And not just America: In 1985, Ms. Rice, then an assistant professor at Stanford University, visited and lectured at the National Defense Academy of Japan, in Yokosuka. At the end of her three-week stay there, one of her hosts thanked her for her contribution: "It shows the Japanese," he said, "that not all black people are stupid."
This is a very personal book, in which the author's aim is to give thanks to her fiercely protective parents—the "extraordinary, ordinary people" of the title—for the manner in which they raised her, placing on her a protective carapace that shielded her from the worst slights and horrors of the Jim Crow South. They hot-housed their daughter, endowing her with the best education available, steeping her in sports, books, music and high culture, so that no one could ever regard her as inferior or second-best. This formula was not without its excesses: They attempted to enroll her in first grade when she was only 3; but it succeeded resoundingly, because their unstinting ambition for young Condi was matched by her ambition for herself.
Ms. Rice's journey from racially segregated Birmingham to service as the 66th secretary of state is a story as impressive as that of Barack Obama's odyssey to the White House—and in many ways more so. Her experience of racial indignities was of a different order altogether, and the obstacles she had to overcome included the formidable thing that these days is referred to as "gender." Opportunities did not present themselves with any profusion to a black woman of her generation, particularly in the South, and her rise to the political pinnacle is one of the marvels of the modern American age.
The author is blunt about race in America. While she acknowledges the fact that, "despite the gross inequities [her] ancestors faced," race is today "no longer determinative of how far one can go," she writes: "America is not color-blind and likely will never be. Race is ever present, like a birth defect that you learn to live with but can never cure." Chapter 35 of the book, "Tough Decisions," is especially fascinating for its discussion of affirmative action, which Ms. Rice supports—and acknowledges to have been the beneficiary of.
Those in search of insights into the presidency of George W. Bush—in particular, the growing dysfunction of its later stages—will find scarcely anything of profit in this memoir, which is a resolutely, even defiantly, non-polemical book. This is a memoir of her life before the Bush White House, commencing around 1953, when her parents began courting. In fact, in an exquisite tease, it ends its narrative in January 2001. And yet, for all its unadorned language, its clement tone and its gentle, almost girlish revelations, the book offers a clearer guide than any we have to the mind and mien of the woman who would serve alongside George W. Bush in some of America's most turbulent times.
Of the five main players in the Bush administration—Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, Ms. Rice and the president himself—Ms. Rice was the one who succeeded best at being imperturbable, even inscrutable, the one to whom the least obloquy came to be attached in the minds of critics. The key to her composure in office—which was a mix of womanly grace and analytical rigor—lies in the manner in which she was raised. In this, America owes a debt to John and Angelena Rice, parents extraordinarily pushy—parents extraordinarily brave.
Mr. Varadarajan is writer at large at the Daily Beast and a fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution.