Friday, July 25, 2014

Book review: "Growing Up" by Russell Baker

Shortly after joining the Navy during World War II, Russell Baker faced a dilemma. As part of training, he and other recruits were directed to jump off a high dive into a pool.

There was one problem -- Baker couldn't swim.

"I'm a nonswimmer," Baker told the instructor. "You want me to go to the shallow end of the pool?"

"This pool doesn't have a shallow end," the instructor said gruffly.

"Well, what am I going to do?" asked Baker.

"Get up on that platform and jump."

In "Growing Up," Baker describes what happened next:

Quaking in every fiber, I climbed the ladder, edged out onto the board, took one look down, and unable to faint, stepped back.

"Jump!" the instructor roared.

I stepped to the edge, closed my eyes, and walked into space. The impact of the water was like being smacked on the bottom by a two-by-four, then I was sinking, then my God! I was rising irresistibly to the surface. My head broke water. The water was actually supporting me, just as everybody had always said it would. The instructor glared.

"You didn't keep your legs straight," he shouted. "Get back up there and do it again."

This was one of the best moments in "Growing Up," Baker's pleasant 1982 autobiography of his first 25 years or so. He would grow up to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper columnist.

The book revolves around Baker's relationship with his mother, who raised him largely alone after his father died when Baker was just five. It's a loving, though sometimes contentious, relationship, as his mother placed a lot her hopes and dreams in raising a successful son.

Baker's stories are all nicely told and he does well evoking images of life in the 1920s through '40s. But the stories are rarely riveting. Think mild, not wild.

I liked the book more as it went on; I'm sure everyone can relate to the awkwardness of his teenage years and his clumsy relations with the opposite sex. My favorite chapter was No. 15, where Baker joins the Navy. It's there that he not only learns to swim, but learns to fly a plane even though he didn't even know how to drive a car.

The book has some surprising nuggets for language buffs.  Baker notes that he became a "teenager" before that term had even been invented. And in 1931, with the American economy flagging, President Herbert Hoover "refused to use the scare word 'recession' when speaking about the slump. It was merely 'a depression,' he said."

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