Bill Bryson grew up in 1950s America, on record as one of the happiest decades in American history (at least for white people – I’m pretty sure they were the only ones surveyed at the time). And his childhood is equally nostalgic and idyllic, full of boyish fun like locking all the stalls in the bathroom and peeing on Lincoln Logs to see them turn white. Bryson doesn’t skimp on the harsher issues of the time, though, even though he didn’t experience them, covering the difficult aspects of the fifties like atomic bombs, widespread unhealthy behavior, and unrelenting racism and prejudice.
This was the first book I read by Bill Bryson. I knew about his popularity, but I still wasn’t really sure what to expect besides a funny memoir. I definitely got that and then some. At first, I was a little concerned that the book was going to be all about his childhood, especially when he introduced the joke of the Thunderbolt Kid, and paint an idyllic image that didn’t accurately represent the truth of the period. He didn’t, though; he recognizes all the problems that the country had even though he depicts his own childhood through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia. For example, he idolizes his mother even though he acknowledges the clear difficulties she must have had while working, raising three children, and still being responsible for everything around the house. He discusses the fact that women were relegated mostly to the home – in a number of states it was actually illegal for a married woman to work. He cherishes all that she does, but he seems to acknowledge that it must have been much too difficult for her.
Bryson’s life feels very much like small town America even though he actually grew up in a city – Des Moines, Iowa. Everything is in walking distance – the sweet shop, the three different elaborate movie theaters, his parents’ newspaper offices, and so on. All the kids hung out outside pretty much all day in the summer in huge groups, something that never seems to happen these days. My own parents, who are a little bit younger than Bryson, have also commented on this. It wasn’t really necessary for the kids to be driven anywhere to have fun because they could get pretty much wherever they wanted. Bryson even had the first job of the typical American kid – he’s a paperboy, in the richest section of town because his father was important at the paper. From his own experience, it’s hard to be surprised that Americans supposedly reached the peak of happiness in 1957. For the first time, many people could afford things they’d only dreamed about and even some things they hadn’t.
But he also talks about the bad parts of the 50s. Cigarettes were healthy, atomic and hydrogen bomb explosions had an audience, and additives were injected into food for mostly the first time. Everything seemed blissful, but the problems that were set to continue affecting Americans up to this day were still happening. As a kid, though, Bryson thought everyone seemed cheerful about it. He got along just fine with kids of other races and the problems that the rest of the world experienced passed him by.
The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid was a very enjoyable memoir that I thought effectively covered both the author’s childhood and the wider issues going on in the country at the time. It was the perfect mix of personal and national issues with a fantastic touch of humor. I’m really looking forward to reading more by Bill Bryson.
I am an Amazon Associate. I borrowed this book from my local library.