Library Director’s Notebook
This year Lauri Burke and I will be leading book discussion groups focused around the Reading Across Rhode Island (RARI) selection Water For Elephants by Sarah Gruen. As part of our yearly participation, we like to pair discussion of the RARI selection with a fiction or non-fiction choice of our own that somehow relates to or expands upon the RARI theme.
Water for Elephants is set during the Depression and follows the fortunes of members of a traveling circus. Throughout the book, the Great Depression plays a central role, contributing to the fates of many of the characters. That is why we have chosen Russell Baker’s memoir of the Depression, Growing Up as our second book for discussion.
Russell Baker, a Pulitzer prize winning essayist, perhaps most recognized as the urbane, gently ironic host of PBS’s Masterpiece Theater, was born in 1925 in a small town in Virginia. His father died while he was quite young, and his mother raised him with high expectations, which never faltered, no matter what struggles or privations the Depression could throw at them.
In Growing Up we see a small and timid Russell striving hard to fulfill his mother’s expectations that he “make something of himself”. Yet as a young boy his dreamy disposition and love of reading seemed to show a lack of “grit” and bode ill for his reaching the standards that his mother had set for him.
Baker grew up surrounded by strong women, women who felt a self-imposed destiny to keep their men up to snuff, even if those men continually disappointed them. His paternal grandmother and mother were often at loggerheads: two strong women battling for domination of Russell's mind and heart.
Through it all, the Depression with its soup kitchens, breadlines, lost homes, and broken dreams provides a murky milieu, yet one that young Russell was often able to forget, with the wonderful insouscience found in most young children. The march of war succeeded the dragging pace of the Depression, and Russell’s ambitious, protective mother now found herself facing the terror known to so many mothers whose sons prepare to go to war.
Any story of the Depression is sure to be gripping. Russell Baker’s personal story is not only compelling but often very funny as well. We hope you will join us next month as we begin discussing this book as part of our RARI book program!