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Review: The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Bill Bryson

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.

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9 comments to Review: The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Bill Bryson

  • The only Bryson book I have read is Shakespeare and while it was an excellent book, it didn’t include the humor Bryson is known for, so I suppose I need to read some of his other books.
    .-= Stephanie´s last blog ..Book Review: The 19th Wife =-.

  • I really love Bill Bryson; he is very entertaining. My husband read this one, and while he enjoyed it a lot, he likes other Bryson books better. But apparently he had the football game that Bryson talked about with the vibrating players, and he must have laughed for a month over that anecdote! We like to listen to Bryson tapes on road trips, because they do tend to have short chapter-length anecdotes that are perfect for stopping and starting, and also keeping you awake and entertained.
    .-= rhapsodyinbooks´s last blog ..June 16 –All about Bloomsday =-.

  • I have heard such good things about Bryson’s books, but haven’t ever had the chance to read one. I like the sound of this book, and think that it sounds like he was pretty balanced with his perspective and that of others in the story. It sounds like he had a wonderful childhood, but it’s nice that he didn’t ignore the fact that there were some bad things going on during that period of history. Great review, I am glad you liked the book and will be looking for it. Thanks so much for sharing it with us!!
    .-= zibilee´s last blog ..Girl In Translation by Jean Kwok – 304 pgs =-.

  • My husband has just finished A Walk in the Woods (he asks me for recommendations and I offer TBR books from my shelves). He really enjoyed it, even though he is not much of a reader.

    I purchased …Thunderbolt Kid at the library book sale for him to read as well. I also hope to read Notes from a Small Island soon (if I can’t go to England this year, I at least want to read about it).
    .-= Molly´s last blog ..Wordless Wednesday: Puppies =-.

  • This is the book that turned me on to Bill Bryson. I really liked A Walk in the Woods too.
    .-= Jaime´s last blog ..2010: #55 – Killing Orders (Sara Paretsky) =-.

  • I really liked this when I read it a couple of years ago. I’ve been revisiting Bryson on audio — maybe I’ll listen to this next. I’m not that much younger than Bryson, so I could relate to a lot of what remembers from the time.
    .-= Beth F´s last blog ..Review: Day for Night by Frederick Reiken =-.

  • I read this book pre-blog and really enjoyed it. I thought his point about making all of her cities the same with all of our franchises was so true.

  • Oh good I’m glad to hear it’s fab, because I read the first few pages and everything seemed so idyllic I felt like Bryson was going sacharine. Will try again.
    Jodie´s last post …Crossing – Andrew Xia Fukada

  • […] looking forward to reading more by Bill Bryson – his later writing is definitely better, if The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid is any indication, so I’ll be rounding out my collection of his books sometime in the very […]