Book Review by Raymond M. Wong
Baker, Russell. Growing Up. New York: Signet, 1982. Print.
There is nothing earthshaking happening in Russell Baker’s memoir, Growing Up. No rampant alcoholism, disfiguring calamity, or a soul-searing incident of abandonment to hook and maintain a reader’s interest. What is offered instead in the pages of this touching book more than makes up for any lack of heart-pumping suspense. Baker paints a picture of his upbringing in a landscape as warm and colorful as the Norman Rockwell covers gracing the Saturday Evening Post editions Baker tries to peddle as an 8-year-old boy in a small town called Belleville at the outskirts of Newark, New Jersey.
Baker begins the book as an adult narrator visiting his 80-year-old mother who is in the throes of senility. She fails to recognize her own son, and Baker reflects on time and the disparities of perception between parents and children and memories that define us: “We all come from the past, and children ought to know what it was that went into their making, to know that life is a braided cord of humanity stretching up from time long gone, and that it cannot be defined by the span of a single journey from diaper to shroud” (18).
We come to know Baker’s mother before the onset of dementia, a woman who, after her husband’s death, takes her two young children to live with an uncle during the Great Depression, a parent who views her son’s lack of “gumption” with utter disdain, and a mom who later despises the woman Baker falls in love with and tries to sabotage their relationship in any underhanded manner she can conceive.
Baker captures a child’s unique perspective with wide-eyed innocence in describing the sight of his deceased father at the funeral: “He was wearing his blue serge suit and white shirt and necktie … But it wasn’t the niceness of the way he was dressed and the way his hair was so carefully combed that impressed me. It was his stillness. I gazed at the motionless hand laid across his chest, thinking no one can lie so still for so long without moving a finger. I waited for the closed eyelids to flutter, for his chest to move in a slight sigh to capture a fresh breath of air. Nothing. His motionlessness was majestic and terrifying (83).
The heart of the book is Baker’s relationship with his mother—two people possessed of a single-mindedness bordering on stubborn. An example is rendered in the matter of corporal punishment. Baker’s mom is frustrated to see that her belt whipping is not having the desired effect of inducing tears from her son. Baker is adamant that he won’t give his mother the satisfaction of seeing him cry: “Sometimes, to goad her with proof of my contempt, I gritted my teeth and, when the belt had fallen four or five times, muttered, ‘That doesn’t hurt me.’ In these moments we were very close to raw hatred of each other. We were two wills of iron. She was determined to break me; I was just as determined that she would not” (125).
Baker takes us through incidents of his life with an unerring eye for the right detail and whimsical prose that is pitch perfect: the wretched taste of cod liver oil as a home remedy for childhood diseases ranging from mumps to whooping cough, the accepted code of conduct in a schoolyard fistfight, the excitement of hiding out and witnessing his first real-life boy/girl kiss between an 11-year-old friend and a girl from school at a park bench, Baker’s resolve to distance himself from a stepfather named Herb, and the way Baker finally succumbs to his feelings and proposes marriage to the woman his mother cannot stand.
All of these scenes are depicted with warmth, humor, an endearing charm that rings utterly true, and crisp, entertaining prose. Baker is equally adept at dialogue that captures the essence of relationships, descriptions that bring a reader into the fold of a period such as the Depression, and characterizations snapping with sharpness and vivid details. Here’s Baker’s take on a bully: “Short, red-haired, not much taller than a fireplug but just as solid, he prowled the streets, taciturn and alone, looking for blood” (159).
After taking the reader on a journey into his life, Baker ends on the same note in which he began. He visits his mother, a woman who is senile and doesn’t know her son, but through Russell Baker’s amazing prose, we have come to know and care about her, and that’s the ultimate gift a writer can bestow.