Growing Up Characters

The main characters in Growing Up include Russell Baker, Elizabeth, Doris, and Benny.

  • Russell Baker is the memoir’s author and narrator. He is raised by a single mother during the Great Depression and eventually becomes a successful journalist.
  • Elizabeth is Russell Baker’s strong, hardworking mother, who is determined to secure her family their own home. In her old age, she develops dementia.
  • Doris is one of Russell Baker’s two sisters and serves as a foil for Baker’s younger self.
  • Benny is Russell Baker’s father, who dies when Baker is a child.

Characters

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Last Updated on November 21, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 783

Russell Baker

Russell Baker is the author and narrator of this memoir. He grew up during the Great Depression, raised by a single mother. Early in the book, Russell portrays himself as a weak and uncertain child, overshadowed by his determined mother and competent younger sister. He decides to become a writer almost by default because he does not believe he is capable of doing anything else. As a young man, he becomes intellectually arrogant, but his college experience soon removes that attitude. In the military, he increases his competence but lacks confidence with women for a while longer, until he meets Mimi. Marrying Mimi is one of the few actions Baker takes entirely against his mother’s wishes. Becoming a successful newspaperman may be the source of the confidence behind this action.

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Lucy Elizabeth

Russell Baker’s mother, Lucy Elizabeth, is as central to the book as Baker himself. She is a strong and determined woman who expects a lot from the men around her. After she fails to reform her husband, Benny, she takes Russell in hand and attempts to mold him. Meanwhile, her determination also shows itself in her steady work toward getting the family a home of their own. When tactic after tactic fails, she keeps applying herself until she succeeds. The young Russell often expresses frustration with his mother, but Baker, as author and narrator, clearly shows the reverence and respect that he developed for Lucy Elizabeth over time.

Doris 

Russell Baker’s sister Doris has a powerful presence in the book, which is dedicated to her. In some ways, Doris serves as a foil for Baker. As a girl, she experiences neither the high expectations nor the independence and respect that Baker does. This is ironic, the narration implies, because in fact, Doris was much more organized, reliable, and confident than the young Russell. The incident where Doris manages to sell all his newspapers in fifteen minutes is an example of this contrast with the feckless boy, who has failed to sell any newspapers at all. As narrator, Baker often shows respect for his sister by comically undermining his young self.

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Benny 

Benny, Russell Baker’s father, only appears early in the book as he dies when Baker is very young. Yet his absence shapes Baker’s later years even more than his presence did his son’s early ones. Lucy Elizabeth always sees Baker in terms of her late husband. Throughout Baker’s childhood, she is determined to make sure he “makes something of himself” and turns out like her father, “Papa,” not like the alcoholic Benny. This tension drives their relationship. One of the most painful moments in the book is when Lucy Elizabeth tells Russell that he is “just like his father” when he comes home late at night after visiting Mimi.

Uncle Allen 

Uncle Allen is Lucy Elizabeth’s brother. He takes in the family after Benny dies, supporting his sister and her children until they can live on their own. Hardworking and cheerful, Allen remains optimistic through the early days of the Depression, though his life becomes more difficult when more of his siblings move in. When Lucy Elizabeth and her family first arrive, Allen is happy to have them because he has no family of his own, but this begins to change as he and his wife, Russell’s aunt Pat, begin to have children of their own.

Aunt Pat 

While Allen is calm, cheerful, and determined, Pat is loud, expressive, and often frustrated with the world. She loves children and enjoys having Baker and his sister around. The self-conscious young Russell, however, is sometimes embarrassed by the excesses of his aunt’s expressiveness. Her lack of self-control is particularly notable when she becomes enraged over the poster of Herbert Hoover. This incident also makes clear how well-matched she and Allen are, however, as he manages to defuse her wrath through the idea of putting up their own poster, leading her to march through the neighborhood looking for one instead of becoming aggressive with their landlady.

Mimi 

Mimi is the woman Russell Baker loves and eventually marries. She is independent and confident. Some find her to be of questionable character because she wears makeup, stays out late, drinks, and (most damningly) entertains multiple men in her living quarters. Lucy Elizabeth, in particular, very much disapproves of her son’s choice when he first brings Mimi home. For a long time, Russell is not willing to marry Mimi, and Mimi tolerates this, leading their relationship to be “on again off again.” Eventually, traveling and working change Mimi into a more mature woman who will not be with Russell unless he marries her.

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