The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, by Bill Bryson

This memoir of Bryson's childhood in the 1950s, told with his special brand of gentle humor, turns out to be as much about the culture in the U.S. during that decade as about his personal experience. Much was familiar to me, since we are near-contemporaries, so I most enjoyed the bits that fell outside my experience: delivering newspapers, digging through layers of long underwear to pee, watching a tornado move across the horizon. Life in Des Moines, Iowa turns out to be remarkably like life in the Baltimore neighborhood where I grew up. Like me, Bryson was turned loose most of the day to find his own adventures. Unusually for the time, both his parents worked at the local newspaper, which to him mostly meant that dinners were rushed affairs, food thrust in the oven by his mother as she ran in and left to burn while she tore around trying to do the million and one other household chores.

Of Iowa, he says it “has always been proudly middling in all its affairs. It stands in the middle of the continent, between the two mighty central rivers, the Missouri and Mississippi, and throughout my childhood always ranked bang in the middle of everything—size, population, voting preferences, order of entry into the Union.” As such, it makes an appropriate setting for this tale of middle class life during the decade when the U.S. middle class was at its most prosperous.

My favorite part is where he talks of visiting his grandfather's farm. I loved his description of the church potluck suppers with their endless meatloafs with bizarre toppings and Jell-O molds filled with bizarre ingredients—“marshmallows, pretzels, fruit chunks, Rice Krispies, Fritos corn chip”—which were familiar to me from a memorable pot luck supper in Osawatomie, Kansas in 1965. His grandfather's barn was a terrifying place filled with old machinery and old manure. He says:

Even scarier were the fields of corn that pressed in on all sides. Corn doesn't grow as tall as it used to because it's been hybridized into a more compact perfection, but it shot up like bamboo when I was young, reaching heights of eight feet or more and filling 56, 290 square miles of Iowa countryside with a spooky, threatening rustle by the dryish late end of summer. There is no more anonymous, mazelike, unsettling environment, especially to a dim, smallish human, than a field of infinitely identical rows of tall corn, each—including the diagonals—presenting a prospect of endless vegetative hostility. Just standing on the edge and peering in, you knew that if you ventured more than a few feet into a cornfield you would never come out.

Since much of his humor comes from this kind of exaggeration, I felt some concern that readers not as familiar as I with that decade would think that even the true things were exaggerations. Examples include his description of the amount of radiation given off by the bombs so casually tested near populated areas—in 1958, he tells us, “the average child . . . was carrying ten times more strontium [the chief radioactive product of fallout] than he had only the year before”—and the hysteria about communism that led to so many lives being ruined without any proof at all. It is somewhat comforting to be reminded that even back then, foolish congressmen spouted insane pronouncements displaying their prejudices, such as John Rankin from Mississippi saying, “‘Remember, Communism is Yiddish. I understand that every member of the Politburo around Stalin is either Yiddish or married to one, and that includes Stalin himself.'”

In some cases, Bryson thoughtfully includes photographs, such as one of the many ads showing a woman at work, perfectly dressed from the waist down, but above that wearing only a bra, with the caption: “I dreamed I went to work in my maidenform bra.” Without such proof, one would be justified in believing such ads couldn't possibly have been published in all kinds of magazines, so must be an exaggeration.

Such misogynism is only one example of how the 1950s were not the perfection today's ranting politicians would like us to believe and bemoan the loss of. Occasionally he refers to the prejudices whose blatant expression was considered acceptable in those days, but this is Bryson's story of one aspect of 1950s culture, the one he experienced. It is a story of growing up white and well-to-do in the middle of a prosperous U.S. that was filled with optimism about the future despite fears of communism and atomic war. I enjoyed the book and am glad to add his experience to the multiple other facets that make up the prism of this decade.

What books about the 1950s have you read?

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