Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Biography Series Growing Up Analysis
Growing Up, the winner of the 1983 Pulitzer Prize in biography, is Baker’s attempt to show his coming of age, placing his experiences within a historical setting as well as within his own family situation. His effort to give an honest, personal account of his youth is aided by his ability to step outside himself and look into the lives of those around him. He is particularly sensitive to the motivations, the strengths and weaknesses, and the complex feelings that guided those he loved. As a result, the tone of this book is honest but never harsh, understanding but not judgmental, and self-analytical but not self-serving. Although this book was written for a general audience and not specifically for young adults, it has much to offer the teenage reader who is interested in the story of one individual’s analysis of his own growth, development, and struggles to make sense of his life.
In some ways, Growing Up is an accounting of the influences on Baker of the women in his life. The most obvious influence is that of his mother, Lucy. Left destitute when her father died while she was in college, Lucy had to leave the area that she knew and go into the backwoods in order to secure a teaching position to support herself. There she met and married Benjamin Baker, whose death left her with two children to support and virtually no means to do so. Indeed, she was so desperate that she was forced to give up her youngest child, Audrey, to be...
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Masterplots II: Nonfiction Series Growing Up Analysis
Vastly entertaining and yet rich in human drama and emotion, Growing Up is a remarkably intelligent and evocative look back at a young boy’s coming of age during a crucial period in American history. Russell Baker manages to capture in his portrait of his early years both the specific, lovingly remembered details of his own life and the larger cultural and historical events which shaped them. To his recollections of a life that, seen from the outside, often appears difficult, Baker brings not a trace of self-pity or maudlin histrionics, offering instead a rare sense of perspective. Warmth and humor are the keynotes of his style, and he brings his past to life with dry wit and an appreciation for the lessons it taught him.
What emerges is a beautifully realized portrayal of family life as a sustaining and motivating force in times of personal misfortune and economic hardship. For young Russell, or “Buddy” as he is called, a house without indoor plumbing or, later, an apartment shared with a half dozen relatives on thirty dollars a week represents the only world he knows; he accepts it with the equanimity of a child too young to measure his own life against outside standards of comparison. The events which stun and shake him are emotional, not economic: his father’s sudden death, his mother’s unexpected remarriage. Secure in the love and protection of his mother and a host of aunts and uncles, he observes the adult world with innocence and curiosity, moving inexorably toward its ranks under Lucy Baker’s watchful eye and stern notions of building character.
The humor with which Baker relates his tales of childhood owes much to Mark Twain, and his stories are wry, good-natured, and characterized by a careful ear for dialogue and colorful colloquialisms. He is often the object of his own jokes, a quiet boy whose mother fears that he might become that most dreaded of characters, “a bump on a log,” and whose younger sister Doris has “enough gumption for a dozen people.” The engaging picture Baker paints of himself throughout the book is that of an unsophisticated boy stumbling wide-eyed through his childhood as he grasps occasional pointers from his more knowing relatives and companions. It is a portrait he expands upon as his story progresses; the seventeen-year-old Russell knows nothing about international politics but follows the fortunes of fighter Joe Louis with avid interest, and at eighteen he leaves for the war exuberant and excited—only to call home by midmorning, badly homesick.
The humor in Growing Up is also tempered by an understanding of the frailties of human nature. All the relatives portrayed in the book are remembered with love and affection despite their shortcomings, a testament to the compassion which time and maturity have given Baker. His...
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Critical Context (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Biography Series)
At the beginning of Growing Up, Baker writes of his chagrin at “having become one of those ancient bores whose highly selective memories of the past become transparently dishonest even to small children.” His regret at having dismissed his own past so casually and his belief that all young people need to know and understand the past from which their lives came signal his motivation for writing this book. His attempt to place his own life in the context of his time succeeds so well that Growing Up deserves a prominent place among young adult biographies.
Indeed, there are several reasons to consider including this book among those biographies recommended for young adult readers. First, the literary quality of this book is high; it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in biography for 1983. Baker’s evocative prose is disarmingly simple, unexpectedly rich. Second, as a recollection of the life of a young person during the Great Depression and World War II, this book offers a personal account of that time. While history texts give political facts, books such as Growing Up offer examples of the realities of the lives of people during the period under study. Finally, this is a book that points out how often young people share common emotional experiences, regardless of the differences in the times and places in which they live. The tendencies of generations to believe themselves unique may be lessened with the knowledge that many children find growing up to be painful and bewildering.
Critical Context (Masterplots II: Nonfiction Series)
As an award-winning newspaper columnist, Russell Baker is known for his wry, insightful commentaries on a wide variety of subjects, from the vagaries of human nature to the events and fashions of the day. Growing Up represents his first foray into the realm of autobiography, and the book is characterized by the same qualities that serve as the hallmarks of his journalistic style. For Baker’s regular readers and admirers, the book offers an engaging look at the experiences which shaped his outlook as a writer, fleshing out the life of the commentator they have come to know exclusively through his columns.
Baker’s emphasis in his book is on the people and events that helped shape his character rather than on a specific recounting of dates and times. Yet the book is for the most part chronological in its retelling of his early years, and Baker grounds it firmly within a specific era. The result is an autobiography that lets its impressions of its historical setting emerge from the life it is recounting. There are no superimposed descriptions of breadlines, battles, or the Wall Street crash in Growing Up; the Depression and the war exist in the repercussions they cause within Baker’s family.
That Baker succeeds so admirably in his attempt to present history within the context of a young boy’s life is the result primarily of the perspective he has gained with time and reflection. Baker’s ability to see himself so clearly within the context of history is as invaluable as the winning humor with which he relates his stories. Together, these two qualities make him a gifted storyteller within the limits of reasonable accuracy and truth, and the result is an autobiography that is steeped in the traditions of American humor and illuminating in its insights into American life.
As Baker states at its outset, life in the United States before the changes produced since World War II is the true subject of his book, and his touching, humorous, and always perceptive recollections offer a heartwarming portrait of a childhood that serves as a window for his readers into a world which is still an integral part of his character.