On 'Coming of Age'
When thinking about your own childhood and youth, sometimes it's good to give yourself a frame of reference. What alternatives are out there? What resonates? Who are the role models for the good life -- or not? In whose young life can you find echoes of your own? Memoirs are a way of seeing how others lived and grew up. So here are a few of the ones I've read and loved. These are "coming of age" books -- what a loaded phrase -- from an earlier era, all reflecting both individual and universal truths.
1. Growing Up, by Russell Baker.
There's a reason why "Growing Up" won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography, so let's start with Baker's 1982 classic that tells the plain tale of its title. Born in 1925 in Loudoun County, Va., Baker grew up in the Depression years, first in rural Virginia and later in New Jersey and Baltimore. His blue-collar father died when he was 5, and his mother, to whom the book is a paean, struggled to cope with the drama of life. "Growing Up" is as much her story as his, but, more, it's the story of a time in America long gone and lovingly evoked. Baker has been called "as funny and as touching as Mark Twain," and in this book he writes beautifully and personally about ordinary life, presenting pictures that are an incredible combination of funny and sad.
2. The Road from Coorain, by Jill Ker Conway
Published in 1989, this, too, is a classic coming of age tale, but it's also a story of true grit and adventure writ large on the windswept plains of the Australian outback. Jill Ker Conway grew up on her family's 30,000-acre (not a typo) sheep farm in New South Wales. A spunky, curious young girl, essentially self-educated in her early years, she lived a solitary existence, helping her family deal with the endless trials of trying to tame the land. They abandoned the farm and moved to Sydney only after the deaths of her father and one of her brothers left her bereft mother changed forever.
3. An American Childhood, by Annie Dillard
Annie Dillard first came to the public's attention with the publication of "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" when she was 29. "Pilgrim" was a kind of extended essay, a meditation on the natural world. With "An American Childhood," published in 1987, she turned her attention to her own world and gave us a lyrical look at her idyllic and privileged childhood growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1950s -- with portraits of her unorthodox father, her "unstoppable force" of a mother, and lots of other compelling characters from her neighborhood. I once called this book less a coming-of-age story than a coming-awake one. Dillard's descriptions of her early reading life are an added bonus.
4. Stop-Time, by Frank Conroy
Written in 1967 when Conroy was in his early 30s, "Stop-Time" didn't seem to land with any impact until it was republished in 1977. Possibly the precursor of some of the adolescent angst memoirs of today -- Augusten Burroughs comes to mind -- "Stop-Time" stopped me in my tracks when I read it 30 years ago. I haven't read it since, so I don't know that it would have the same effect on me now, but, then, Conroy's exquisite prose, his detailed descriptions of a tough home life, his dispassionate telling of the highs and lows of a boy's real life struck a chord.
5. One Writer's Beginnings, by Eudora Welty
The New Yorker called "One Writer's Beginnings" (1984) "a kind of present...from Miss Welty to her audience." Indeed. I like to think that I single-handedly accounted for putting this book on the bestseller list, since I gave it to so many of my friends with a breathless "You must read this" exhortation. Certainly, Eudora Welty covers her path to becoming a writer, but this incandescent memoir pauses fondly over her ordinary and happy childhood, reflecting on her family, her quiet but rich Mississippi days, and her beloved books. This is her completely honest and simple approach to her own growing up. Read it and weep and laugh and learn what happens to a natural writer when she stops to listen (see her chapter called "Listening").
-- Evelyn Small
By Christian Pelusi |
November 1, 2007; 6:50 AM ET
Previous: Lost and Rediscovered Books | Next: For When You're Down in the Dumps and Life Has No Meaning
Please email us to report offensive comments.
Posted by: Marcy | November 2, 2007 2:40 PM
Posted by: Ev Small, Book World | November 2, 2007 4:11 PM
Posted by: Wayne | November 2, 2007 10:42 PM
Posted by: anonymous | November 3, 2007 8:20 AM
Posted by: revelator | November 4, 2007 5:57 AM
Posted by: book crazy in bethesda | November 4, 2007 1:22 PM
Posted by: Ms Baroque | November 5, 2007 12:42 AM
Posted by: Ev Small | November 5, 2007 10:20 AM
Posted by: Pierluigi Rotundo | November 5, 2007 11:37 AM
Posted by: Marie Arana | November 5, 2007 12:22 PM
Posted by: Marcy | November 5, 2007 10:15 PM
Posted by: Ron Charles, Book World | November 6, 2007 3:23 PM
Posted by: Nancy D. | November 8, 2007 10:02 AM
Posted by: Pierluigi Rotundo | November 30, 2007 2:53 PM
Posted by: Pierluigi Rotundo | December 2, 2007 12:38 PM
Posted by: Karen Jorgensen | December 18, 2007 7:48 PM
The comments to this entry are closed.