Books: The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

Our book club selection this month was Bill Bryson’s The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir. Having previously read his book The Mother Tongue – English And How It Got That Way, I was happy to read something else by Bryson.

It took me a while to realize that while it is written in the form of a memoir, it really is not so much about Bryson as about what it was like growing up in the 1950’s and early 60’s. As I was born a decade later in the early 60’s, and in the middle of Connecticut rather than the middle of Iowa, I find some of his recollections similar to my own, and others very different.

I remember buying candy for pennies in a small, mom-and-pop type grocery store. I suppose other children probably stole candy the way Bryson describes, not because I ever saw it but because my mother told us that Harry (the store owner) had told her that her children were honest. I recognize some of the candies he mentions, such as the syrup-filled wax bottles (which I never cared for) and Pixy Stix, which I did like.

I played with some of the same toys, though unlike Bryson I thought that Slinky and Silly Putty were lots of fun. I remember reading comic books in the store, though unlike Bryson I preferred Archie to superheroes. Naturally the Thunderbolt Kid liked superheroes. I imagined being a baseball player or a soldier, but never a superhero.

While the others in the book club grew up here in Iowa and I’m from New England, we all remember how much more easy-going parents were back then in terms of letting children play outside with no supervision. None of us had parents quite as (apparently) unobservant of their children’s activities as the Brysons, but we all had a good deal of freedom to go to the park, go swimming, or just wander about town.

Never having been to Des Moines, I can only try to imagine some of the places he describes. I can think of similar places in some cases in Newington or nearby Hartford. I remember the old department stores, and the style of older buildings in the city. And on my infrequent visits back there, I have seen how much the place has changed as older buildings and businesses disappeared, replaced usually by nationwide chains and by buildings with little charm or personality.

One thing completely foreign to my own childhood was his visits to his grandparents’ farm. When I was little there was a farm where my parents used to buy fresh corn and shell beans (to make succotash, which I did not much like). But the farm had the misfortune to be in the path of some road being built, and that was the end of it. I had never seen any more of the farm than the stand where they sold vegetables, and all I knew of farms was what I saw at Old Sturbridge Village. I knew that states like Iowa and Kansas had lots of farms but they were unimaginably remote from where I lived.

Now that I live here in Iowa, though, I not only know people who farm, I actually know some of the places he mentions. My husband was a part-time pastor for a year in Winfield, where Bryson’s grandparents lived. Bryson mentions Wapello (where my husband ministers now) and other towns in this part of the state. It’s not often I actually know the places I read about – even if things have changed a great deal in fifty years.

At the end Bryson describes how much things had begun to change even by the time he grew up. I’m sure he would agree that not everything was better back then, but certainly there is a good deal that was good in that era that has been lost, particularly in terms of small, local businesses now replaced by chains and conglomerates. I understand the economic reasons behind the change, and perhaps it was inevitable, but something was lost nonetheless.

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