An American Childhood

by Annie Dillard

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 541

Annie Dillard, née Doak

The main character in An American Childhood is the author herself. As a child and adolescent, Dillard is incredibly curious and a voracious reader. She throws herself wholeheartedly into her various interests, which range from drawing to geology to sports. She is also very introspective and tends to see her world in relation to her “interior life,” always seeking out books that will captivate her imagination and match the excitement of this interior life. As a teenager, she becomes wild, passionate, and angry, and questions why she should lead the same suburban Pittsburgh life as her parents. At the memoir’s end, it is clear that she will continue to seek a life of passion and excitement, just as she has throughout her childhood. 

Dillard’s Mother and Father

Given that the book is written from Dillard’s point of view, her mother and father are characterized according to the way Dillard sees them in relation to herself. She characterizes her mother as clever, smart, and engaging, even a bit of a prankster. Although an upper-class woman and housewife, she is not the typical woman of the 1950s; she teaches her daughters how to both curtsy and play poker. Dillard describes her father, Frank Doak, as being free-spirited despite his conservatism, hard work, and business sense. He is also comedic, like Dillard’s mother. He is obsessed with New Orleans and at one point quits his job to travel there by river, although he gets lonely and returns home before arriving. 

Amy Doak

Dillard has two younger sisters, Amy and Molly—but as Molly is significantly younger than her, Dillard interacts with Amy the most in the course of the memoir. Amy and Dillard spend a great deal of time together as children, but as Dillard ages, she begins to view Amy differently and becomes impatient with her. Amy is a pretty, quiet, obedient child, and she doesn’t doesn’t seem to have the same sense of adventure as Dillard. As a result, Dillard loses interest in Amy in early adolescence. The two bond again as teenagers when Amy begins to visit Dillard, who has been grounded, in her bedroom. Amy’s future is shaped in part by Dillard’s behavior and experiences as an adolescent: she is eventually sent to boarding school because their mother doesn’t want two wild teenage girls like Dillard in the same house at the same time. 

Meta “Oma” Waltenburger Doak

Oma, Dillard’s paternal grandmother, is a tall, wealthy, very elegant redhead. Dillard and Amy live with her for a month every summer in her house on the shores of Lake Erie. Dillard realizes that there is tension between Oma and her mother: each is determined to “win over” Dillard and Amy and make them more like herself. Dillard’s mother succeeds in winning them morally: Dillard and Amy are ashamed of Oma’s “bursts of bigotry.” Oma wins in that Dillard and Amy are still allowed to stay with her every summer, despite their mother’s protests. Dillard comes to realize that while her mother and the rest of the family condemn Oma for her bigotry, it is actually her bad taste that irritates them the most.

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