Growing Up Themes

The main themes in Growing Up are the importance of family, poverty and economic struggle, and determination and success.

  • The importance of family: The memoir centers on Baker’s family members—especially his single mother, Elizabeth—and how they shaped Baker’s childhood and worldview.
  • Poverty and economic struggle: The Great Depression caused financial hardship for Baker’s family, and Elizabeth constantly struggled to earn enough money for a home of their own.
  • Determination and success: Baker’s mother was determined not only to care for her family but to mold Baker into a successful young man.

Themes

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Last Updated on November 21, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 741

The Importance of Family 

Russell Baker centers his memoir on his family above all else, even more than the historical background of the Depression that frames the narrative. In fact, the book is arguably as much about Baker’s mother, Lucy Elizabeth, as it is about Baker himself. Both the first and the last sentences in the book are about Lucy Elizabeth, and the narration rarely goes more than a page or two without mentioning something about her. Even Baker’s romantic relationships are often framed through Lucy Elizabeth’s perspective on them, and Baker sees his father through her eyes as well. Much of the book is a sustained reflection on how Lucy Elizabeth shaped Baker’s growing personality. His sister Doris was a less forceful presence, but Baker contrasts his own idleness and uncertainty as a child with his sister’s strength and competence from their early days.

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Growing up, Baker was also surrounded by family members, from his childhood across the street from Ida Rebecca to his adolescence full of uncles. At one point, he notes that from family discussions, he absorbed “ways of looking at the world that were to stay with [him] for many years.” The narration suggests that having such a big family presented Baker with an array of lenses through which he could choose to look at the world. Ultimately, Baker implies that this experience equipped him to be a successful writer.

Poverty and Economic Struggle 

Baker’s family struggled with poverty for much of his early life. A strong thread through his childhood was his mother’s constant struggle to make enough money and provide her children with “a home of their own.” The family’s personal financial woes also unfolded against the background of the Depression, a time when nearly the whole of the United States experienced financial suffering. Lucy Elizabeth struggled for many years to make enough money to support her family. Until he was a teenager, Baker’s family almost always lived with relatives, often in uncomfortable situations that Lucy Elizabeth wanted to get out of as soon as possible. Repeatedly, economic causes led to disappointment for Lucy Elizabeth and her family, particularly in the case of Lucy Elizabeth’s relationship with Oluf, which ended because Oluf could not make enough money under the circumstances of the Depression.

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In the end, Lucy Elizabeth has to work and save for years to finally get the children into a home of their own. Even then, her family cannot own their own house until Herb comes along. They need two incomes and a stable male adult in the household to achieve this part of the American dream. Though Baker does not state it explicitly, the book makes it evident how much this struggle shaped his adult thinking about the world, particularly his tendency toward cynicism. Even after he began his own career, Baker struggled financially. It is telling that in one of the last scenes in the book, when Baker announces he is going to marry Mimi, his mother asks about his financial state and ultimately makes a significant financial sacrifice to support her son, even though he is marrying a woman of whom she entirely disapproves. For Lucy Elizabeth, money exists to support family, and that holds true throughout her life and her son’s.

Determination and Success

In many ways, determination is the driving force of the story Baker tells: specifically, his mother’s determination. Lucy Elizabeth began raising a family under extremely difficult circumstances, with a son born out of wedlock and an alcoholic husband whom she could not reform. When her husband died young, she took on the family herself, determined to take care of them. She swallowed her pride and took them to live with her brother, but she was always determined to get them a home of their own. And she worked assiduously toward that goal.

Meanwhile, Lucy Elizabeth was also determined that Baker would “make something of himself” and steadily exerted pressure on him to be her idea of a successful man. Baker’s personality developed under the force of that determination, sometimes encouraged by it and other times thwarted. Lucy Elizabeth could not always control him—for example, in the case of Mimi—but she always influenced his opinions and decisions. It is perhaps because her determination was so powerfully present in his life that Baker begins and ends the book with his dying mother.

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