Growing Up Summary

Growing Up is a Pulitzer Prize–winning 1982 memoir chronicling author and journalist Russell Baker’s childhood and young adulthood.

  • Russell Baker grew up during the Great Depression. He was raised by his fiercely determined single mother, Elizabeth, after the death of his and his sisters’ father.
  • Baker earned a scholarship to Johns Hopkins University and attended college there before enlisting in the Navy Air Corps during World War II.
  • The war ended before Baker completed his military training. He met and married a woman named Mimi, eventually having children and grandchildren.

Summary

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Growing Up is a memoir written by American writer Russell Baker. Published in 1982, it tells the story of Baker’s childhood and young adulthood during the Great Depression and World War II.

Much of the memoir focuses on Baker’s relationship with his mother, Lucy Elizabeth, who has become senile in her old age. Baker regrets that he asked Lucy Elizabeth very little about her past when he had the chance and that it is now too late for her to tell him about her life. Despite his children showing the same disinterest in his history that he himself showed in Lucy Elizabeth’s, he is determined to tell his children about his past while he is still able to. Lucy Elizabeth, in her old age, had experienced a “bad fall,” and as her health declined, so did her mental state. She time traveled in her hospital bed: one minute, she was in a moment from her childhood in the early 1900s, and the next she had attended Baker’s wedding in 1950. Her mind slipped away in this manner and prompted Baker to reflect on his own life. Baker sought to avoid the cliched “back in my day” approach with his children, though they began to view him as the “Sappy Old Dad” sitcom character. With this in mind, Baker wrote and rewrote his memoir in an effort to best share his life with his children.

Baker was born in rural Virginia in 1925. His mother, Lucy Elizabeth, earned money for the family as a teacher, and his father, Benny, is an alcoholic. Baker has two sisters, Doris and Audrey. When their father died in 1931, a paternal uncle adopted Audrey. Lucy Elizabeth, Baker, and Doris moved to New Jersey to live with Lucy Elizabeth’s brother Allen and his wife, Pat. However, as the Depression escalated, Lucy Elizabeth could not find work. At eight years old, Baker started earning some extra money for his family by selling newspapers, which sparked his interest in a future career as a journalist.

Uncle Allen’s brothers, Charlie and Hal, moved in with the family when they were living in New Jersey. Hal talked Lucy Elizabeth into giving him seventy-five dollars—which, at the time, was a great deal of money—to start a lumber business; however, he never started the business, leaving Lucy Elizabeth worse off than before. After six years in New Jersey, Lucy Elizabeth, Baker, and Doris leave and move to Baltimore, motivated once more by Hal’s false promises of business opportunities.

Lucy Elizabeth wants a better life for Baker, and he was enrolled at a local high school where he had to compete with students who were far more privileged than he was growing up. Baker found himself caught in between two social classes—white-collar and blue-collar—and he struggled to keep up in school. However, Baker worked hard in his classes and managed to earn a scholarship to Johns Hopkins University.

In 1943, during World War II, Baker dropped out of college to become a pilot in the Navy Air Corps. However, the war ended before he completed his training. Baker returned to Baltimore, finished his studies at Johns Hopkins, and began work as a journalist at the Baltimore Sun. He met Mimi, an uneducated but financially independent woman, whom he married four years later. Baker and Mimi have children and, eventually, grandchildren. Lucy Elizabeth becomes old and develops dementia and is moved into a nursing home, where Baker and his family visit her, even though Lucy Elizabeth can no longer remember much.

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