Thursday, September 16, 2010
By Russell Baker
Russell Baker's mother Lucy Elizabeth always wanted a better life for her son than the one she had. She came from a prosperous family that fell on hard times. She had even been attending college but had to quit to go to work as a teacher. This was how she met Benny, the man who became Baker's father. Benny's family were country folk that didn't believe in higher education. Most of them left school before graduating from grade school. If Baker's mother hadn't become pregnant, she might have thought twice about marrying a man from a background so different from her own. But she did become pregnant (with the author) and Benny's mother never forgave her for trapping her son into marriage.
But Benny Baker was not a well man. It was the 1920s and he was a diabetic. At the time there was no treatment for this disease. Plus Baker liked to drink moonshine even though he became violently ill afterward. In fact, that is what killed him when Russell was only five years old.
So Russell's mom was left to raise her young family all on her own. This was at the beginning of the Great Depression and opportunities for work for a young, single mother were nil. So she moved her family to New Jersey to live with her brother and his wife.
Baker's mom was a woman of determination and one of the things she was determined to do was make a good man out of Russell. But Russell was not as driven and ambitious as his mother would have liked. She forced various jobs on him such as selling magazines and newspapers and she worked with him after school, helping him with his homework and using her experience as a teacher to help him achieve better grades than he might have under his own steam. In fact, his grades were high enough to get him a scholarship to attend college, that is until the United States was dragged into World War II. Russell enlisted in the Navy and became a pilot but never flew any combat missions to his youthful disappointment. After the war he returned to college. And after college he got a job on a newspaper which led to great success later in life. His mother must have been very proud that all her struggles to put her son on the right track paid off.
This was a very interesting book. So many years after the fact, we forget what life was like during the Great Depression. We forget what a struggle it was for many people just to get by. Baker's book makes clear the suffering that many people had to endure and just how hard it was to find enough money to pay the rent and buy groceries, never mind fancy stuff like new clothes and health care. But even more than the trip back to a harder, more desperate time, this book is a look at the relationship of a son and a mother of opposite personalities. Russell portrays himself as a born slacker and his mother as the relentless force behind him that pushed him into success. It's a tremendously interesting memoir of growing up in hard times, very well done.