The Life and Times of the the Thunderbolt Kid

lifeandtimesBill Bryson writes two kinds of books: humorous travel essays (A Walk in the Woods) and serious books about history and language (A Short History of Nearly Everything). This memoir doesn’t fit into either category, although it comes closest to the former, only the “place” we are traveling is Bryson’s 1950s childhood. I was recently looking for a good audio book and was pleased to find a Bill Bryson book I hadn’t read yet. The author narrates his memoirs and he does a wonderful job evoking the voices of teachers, relatives, and other adults he encountered growing up, as well as himself as a child, and his young friends.

Bryson was born in the middle of the Twentieth Century (1951), in the middle of the United States (Des Moines). He uses his unique world view and wit to shine a nostalgic light on what most people would call a simpler time. Bryson doesn’t view the past through rose-colored glasses however, he recalls both the good, and the bad from this time, although “the bad” mostly refers to getting in trouble (accidentally setting his friend’s house on fire – twice), under-performing in school (he had more absences than a kid with a chronic disease), and the annoying things his parents did (his dad didn’t wear underpants at night and his mom couldn’t cook). I often found myself laughing out loud in the car while on my daily commute and hope my fellow drivers didn’t think me too odd.

In addition to Bryson’s wonderful childhood reminiscences, he also includes brief historical background about life in the ’50s for almost every chapter. There’s a brief section about the Cuban Missile Crisis accompanying the story of the time young Billy got his teacher in trouble because he refused to duck and cover during a drill (because no one ever checked to see if you actually did it). He provides interesting facts and statistics about the growth of per capita household income and the explosion of labor saving devices during the ’50s as he discusses the time his parents got a new refrigerator and showed it off to neighbors and visitors for the next six months. He discusses the times spent as his grandparents’ farm for family gatherings and also lets us know just how much farming and farm land has decreased in America over the past half century. He laments the loss of the individuality of different towns & cities, which is something that those born in the ’60s & even ’70s can relate to.

Bryson’s funny stories and entertaining anecdotes are too numerous to mention, so if you’re looking for a good read this summer, I hope you’ll give The Thunderbolt Kid a try. Again, the audio version is excellent, although the print version has lots of photographs from the 1950s. One small warning: there is adult language in this memoir of childhood, but I think it is used sparingly and to great comic effect.

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