The straightforward title of this memoir is a good clue to what’s inside. Basically, he tells you all about how he grew up. It gives you a different perspective on modern memoirs, where people feel that they have to have interior dramas and unique personal problems. Baker tells us very little about his interior life, and focuses almost entirely on other people. It was refreshing, and makes me wonder about our current modern mindset. The idea that I might not be the centre of my own life is somehow sort of a relief. Perhaps our focus on self-improvement and self-care is a symptom of an unhealthy modern self-absorption.
He grows up in a working class home during the Depression. Times are tough, but family bonds are strong. His mother is determined he makes something of himself and in many ways the book is her story more than his. An example of what I mean by times are tough is his paper route. Lots of ten year old kids have paper routes, but his happens at 2am in a bad part of Baltimore. Apparently this is fine, because he gets two dollars.
The book begins in fact with his mother, who is in hospital as an old woman:
Of my mother’s childhood and her people, of their time and place, I knew very little. A world had lived and died, and though it was part of my blood and bone I knew little more about it than I knew of the world of the pharaohs. . . . Sitting at her bedside, forever out of touch with her, I wondered about my own children, and their children, and children in general, and about the disconnections between children and parents that prevent them from knowing each other. Children rarely want to know who their parents were before they were parents, and when age finally stirs their curiosity there is no parent left to tell them.
I suspect this book is written in part for his children. I am not sure how much they will appreciate the extensive detail on how he hooked up with their mum. Essentially when he meets her she works behind the make-up counter, and while he is quite crazy about her he doesn’t think she is ‘good enough’ to be his wife. I am not sure why he is so sniffy, as he is the one with the background in dangerous child labour. In any case, this lady breaks up with him after three years, because she realizes it isn’t going anywhere. He manages to hold off calling her for a heroic three weeks or so. Master stroke on her side, she then goes on a business trip with some men. Then he really loses his mind. Here is their romantic proposal when she returns. It’s 7am at the train station café:
“I was going to say I’ve been thinking while you were away,” I said.“I did some thinking too.”“Well, what I was thinking was, maybe it’s time I started thinking about getting married.”“Do you have somebody in mind?”“Are you still interested in getting married?” I asked“We’ve covered all this a hundred times. I’m tired of it.”“Would you like to get married?”“To who?”“You know what I mean.”“Well, say it,” she said.“Let’s get married.”“After the Sun raises you to eighty dollars a week?”“As soon as you want to. I’ve been figuring, and think we can get by on seventy dollars a week, if you promise to quit charging things in department stores.”“Would I have to live with your mother?”“That’s a hell of a question.”“I just want to know whether I’m going to have a husband or a mother’s boy.”“Do you want to fight or do you want to get married?”“Is March too soon?” she replied.I suppose I gasped. March was only eight weeks away. It seemed terrifyingly immediate. “March is fine with me,” I said.Mimi reached across the table and took my hand.“Kiss me,” she said.
Anyway they made it to their 65th wedding anniversary, so something went right.
This book won the Pulitzer and sold 22 million copies. Not all of those 22 million readers were happy. I got this book used on Amazon, and I do love a yellowing dog-eared copy. I especially love this one, as it was clearly owned by a teenage boy. He adds after the various review quotes:This book sucks! Ken Johnson
He also reveals something I am sure would embarrass him today. In a smart move he writes it in a foreign language:
Ich liebe Sara Welch sehr viel
In a horrifying show of Google power, I was able to establish in about five minutes based on these names and where this book came from that Ken and Sara may be people who attended Clark High School in Las Vegas in the early 90s. Truly, Big Brother is here and he is us.