Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Few childhoods are interesting to anyone other than the individuals that lived them. Even a mundane childhood, though, can be made interesting through good writing, and Bill Bryson’s memoir fits this category. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid is Bryson’s nostalgia-soaked story of his childhood in 1950s Iowa. Bryson describes his family, friends, and the city of Des Moines with reverence for the profound effect they had on his life.
The title refers to Bryson’s childhood alter ego, a superhero who has the power to vaporize all adults who interfere or annoy. Bryson’s rich imagination clearly played a large role in his childhood, and it’s that imagination coupled with a gift for slick writing that makes Thunderbolt Kid so enjoyable. It’s hard to predict whether this book will appeal more to those who remember the 1950s, or those who weren’t born yet and will be charmed by Bryson’s descriptions.
Bryson augments his own memories with slice-of-life tidbits from newspapers of the era along with deeper research into what was going on in the world outside Des Moines. The idyllic atmosphere seems at time to involve willful denial of other national problems, and Bryson is careful to temper the 1950s optimism with darker hints. He describes segregation and Jim Crow laws along with the nuclear arms race that led to schoolchildren being taught to hide under their desks.
I found this book fun to read at times and depressing at the same time. Bill has a funny way of telling a story and I can relate to a lot of the times, but it was depressing when I think that I missed so much. Does that make sense? We were not a family that had a father that worked for a paper and travelled all over taking his son on fun family outings. I didn't even know it was an option to get on a plane as a child. I missed so much and didn't even know it til I read this book. So in that respect I thought it was depressing.