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 Evelyn Small , Nonfiction
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There's a very white component to your list. You've forgotten all the great books on growing up a different kind of American:

When I Was Puerto Rican, Esmeralda Santiago

Womman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston

Hunger of Memory, Richard Rodriguez

The Color of Water, by James McBride

Posted by: Marcy | November 2, 2007 2:40 PM

You're so right, and, believe me, it's way too hard to be limited to five titles, but you've gotten the ball rolling with these great additional titles, all of which swept readers away for a long time. Although I only have anecdotal evidence for this, I think that The Color of Water is still a top seller.

Posted by: Ev Small, Book World | November 2, 2007 4:11 PM

I vote for Lipstick Jihad, which, as i remember was about growing up Iranian in the U.S. and American in Iran.
Your choices are good, though, except for the Conroy. I found it mediocre and plodding.

Posted by: Wayne | November 2, 2007 10:42 PM

Your blog made me want to go out and read every book listed again. What delicious descriptions. I would add The Glass Castle by Jeannette Wall to the list. If you haven't read it, give it a try.

Posted by: anonymous | November 3, 2007 8:20 AM

My favorite is actually a "coming of age"
about a narrator who at the beginning of the novel is using a child's rationale for
everything and eventually learns to think like an adult. It's the novel "Jesus' Son"
by Denis Johnson. I just noticed that Dirda posted he once tried to read half of
one of Johnson's novels & that was all and
if he thinks that means he's "missed out",
that's an understatement. Johnson has long
been one of the greatest novelists of this generation. Critic Harold Bloom
would be on my side on this one, placing
3 of DJ's books in "The Western Canon." And
"Jesus' Son" was on the NYT list of the 20
greatest works of American fiction of the last 50 years. Since dozens of writers &
editors and critics ranked Johnson alongside Roth, Updike, Morrison, McCarthy
and Delillo in importance, surely he's worth another look. Love it or hate it, try "Jesus' Son" because you've never read
anything remotely like it. Plus it's great.

Posted by: revelator | November 4, 2007 5:57 AM

Oh, I love the comment about Jesus' Son. It reminds me I've long wanted to read it.
But since we're suddenly talking about novels that deal with growing up: how about Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time?

Posted by: book crazy in bethesda | November 4, 2007 1:22 PM

Great list, but why does Marcy think you need to grow up "American"?

I'd add:

Eva Hoffman's "Lost in Translation"

Joseph Brodsky's account of growing up in Leningrad, "Less Than One" (an extended essay, not a book)

Alan Bennet's "Untold Stories" & "Written on the Body"

Ingmar Bergman's memoir "The Magic Lantern" - a man who never forgot what it felt like to be a child.

Also, if it doesn't sound too cheesy, Swann's Way - Proust's description of bieng a young boy is one of the most vivid things I've ever read on the subject.

Posted by: Ms Baroque | November 5, 2007 12:42 AM

So much to add: First, I loved Jeannette Walls's The Glass Castle, as did so many thousands of others, which must be why it's still on The Washington Post's bestseller list after 87 weeks.
And thanks to "revelator" for the Denis Johnson comments, which have spurred me to move Johnson's most recent ("Tree of Smoke," a finalist for this year's National Book Award, to be announced next week -- November 14th) closer to the top of the too-huge pile of books by my bed. Michael Dirda may not have finished a Johnson novel, but plenty of others seem to have. I think he won a Whiting Writers' Award, for "emerging writers of exceptional talent and promise," and, by the way, raking in $50,000.
I think I may have read Haddon's "Curious Incident" in one sitting, not being able to stop. I love that our "book crazy" poster put it into this "coming of age" category, where it fits quite nicely.
And what a nice list "Ms. Baroque" has added. I'll read anything by Alan Bennett (and I do). Have you tried his latest?: "The Uncommon Reader," review in Book World by Michael Dirda, also a Bennett lover, and about the Queen discovering the power and pull of books.

Posted by: Ev Small | November 5, 2007 10:20 AM

I'll go for the third...
however, thank you for your wonderful reviews!

Pierluigi Rotundo

Posted by: Pierluigi Rotundo | November 5, 2007 11:37 AM

What a great list of books! To them I'd add Mary Karr's "Liar's Club" and Geoffrey Wolff's "Duke of Deception."
I was about to say that coming of age memoirs are a nice way for authors to avoid contentious family bickering, being that they're largely inspirational, but now that I've listed those two (and having published my own coming of age memoir!) I take that back completely.
Memoirs can be dangerous. But oh so satisfying to read.
--Marie Arana

Posted by: Marie Arana | November 5, 2007 12:22 PM

Hey Ms. Baroque,
I like the way you think.
Your comments are far better than mine.
I was just trying to nudge it away from the narrow consideration of the original.
You took it to another level.
big thanks,

Posted by: Marcy | November 5, 2007 10:15 PM

I've long loved Baker's "Growing Up." Such a charming example of a good writer's ability to make a non-traumatic life compelling!

Posted by: Ron Charles, Book World | November 6, 2007 3:23 PM

What about the classics of the genre, Vladimir Nabokov's Speak, Memory and Mary McCarthy's Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. Not to be too white, also James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son and Claude Brown's Manchild in the Promised Land? And the Autobiography of Malcolm X is stunning.

As for Mary Karr and Jeanette Wall, both memoirs are beautifully written--esp. Karr--but didn't anyone else feel a prickle of uneasiness about the absolute truth of these supposedly true accounts? E.g., did Wall, wrapped in fur and snug in a cab on her way to a society event one cold night TRULY drive past her homeless mother rummaging through a dumpster? Sometimes life does hand us neat juxtapositions and obvious symbols, but this one strains credulity--mine anyway.

Posted by: Nancy D. | November 8, 2007 10:02 AM

Remember they are and remain books....

Pierluigi Rotundo

Posted by: Pierluigi Rotundo | November 30, 2007 2:53 PM

Finished reading "the american childhood"...It's great!

Pierluigi Rotundo

Posted by: Pierluigi Rotundo | December 2, 2007 12:38 PM

A terrific COA book is "The Fortress of Solitude" by Jonathan Lethem. Loved it!

Posted by: Karen Jorgensen | December 18, 2007 7:48 PM

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