Growing Up Summary

Russell Baker

Growing Up

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Growing Up Summary

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Growing up is journalist Russell Baker’s 1982, Pulitzer-prize winning memoir of his boyhood in Virginia, his college years, his military experience, and his marriage, all overshadowed by the loving but overbearing presence of his mother, who insisted that he “make something of himself.” Baker was born in 1925 and lived through harrowing times, including the Depression and WWII, but little seems to have ever happened to him, at least according to his tragi-comic account. In this way, Baker’s character becomes an Everyman: validating that a life well-lived can be rather mundane when viewed from the outside; it is what you make of your life that matters.

He frames his memoir with visits to his mother, Lucy Elizabeth Baker, in 1981. She is then elderly, frail, and losing her memory. Baker uses her failing memory as the jumping off point as he conjures up his own memories. The rest of the memoir is divided into four sections: his birth and youth in Virginia, the Depression years in New Jersey living with his mother’s brother and his family, his college year at Johns Hopkins, followed by fighter pilot training and the end of WWII, ending with his marriage in 1950 to a woman of whom his mother strongly disapproves.

His father dies of the complications of drinking and diabetes in 1930, leaving Lucy to raise three children on her own—Russell, Doris, and baby Audrey. A family member adopts Audrey, and the Depression means that his mother cannot find a job. Lucy, Russell, and Doris move to New Jersey to live with her brother’s family. As the Depression deepens, other family members join them in Allen’s household. Lucy’s only desire is for a home of her own and for her son to make something of his life. When another brother promises to help her get a home of her own, she moves the family to Baltimore. Those promises, however, never materialize.

Lucy gets a job in a dime store: quite a come-down for the daughter of a lawyer who grew up in a middle-class family. Therefore, Lucy’s life is a testament to the notion that the future has to be brighter, because survival right now is tough. Russell learns what a strong woman is from his mother; and he learns her brand of practical optimism. She believes that something will always come along.

She is proven right when she meets and marries a good man, Herb Orrison, a railroad worker with a solid, steady job that can support the family. For the first time in her life, she has a home of her own. Russell hates his step-father, particularly because he takes over the role of the man of the house, displacing Russell in his mother’s affection and attention. Russell is soon to graduate from high school, but he has no plans and doesn’t know what to do.

A friend tells him about scholarships to college, and Russell does well enough in school to get a scholarship to Johns Hopkins University. He drops out, however, to join the Navy and attends fighter pilot training school. However, just as he finishes training, the war ends. He returns to college and meets a young woman, Mimi—a modern woman with thoughts of her own. After four years of courtship, and landing a job as a journalist at the Baltimore Sun, Russell marries Mimi, over his mother’s strong objections. The story of Russell’s life ends with his marriage in 1950.

This memoir’s power lies in its ability to paint an evocative picture of normal, everyday life and the notion that everyone’s lives are made up of just such moments. The reader can relate to all of Russell’s struggles; he is accessible and believable.