The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

by Bill Bryson, 2006

What a hilarious book. I laughed out loud on almost every page. He was born in 1951 in Des Moines, Iowa, and this is a story about growing up there in the 1950s. I LOVED his description of his mom, her horrible cooking, her forgetfulness and spaciness. His dad was the best sports writer in the country, although because he refused to move the family to the east or west coasts, he never became famous. I loved his descriptions of his favorite restaurants, the grand movie theaters, the department stores, candy stores, toys, and his friends. He does not shy away from the ugliness of the 1950s and 1960s, however, and two of the chapters are serious and heartbreaking: Chapter 7, Boom!, in which he details the horrific things we did testing nuclear bombs, especially in the Marshall Islands on March 1, 1954, on the Bikini Atoll, “(a place so delightful that we named a lady’s swimsuit after it).” And our fear of communism and the ugliness that created. He ends that with the story of Guatemala in 1950. They’d finally elected a good man, Jacobo Arbenz, who was going to help the people but United Fruit, an American company who owned most of the farmland in Guatemala, got the American government to underwrite a coup and forced him to flee in 1954. Then the CIA gave the new dictator a list of 70,000 “teachers, doctors, government employees, union organizers, priests–who had supported the reforms in the belief that democracy in Guatemala was a good thing. Thousands of them were never seen again.” So heartbreaking the things we have done throughout history – the injustice, the greed, the pure evil we have done. This chapter was not very funny. You can tell he was and still is angry and disgusted over it.

Another chapter that wasn’t too funny was Chapter 13, The Pubic Years, in which he describes the racism of the 1950s and 1960s. He talks about incidents in Mississippi where white people killed black men for voting and for trying to go to college. And he tells the horrible story of what happened to Emmett Till, a 14 year old black child who was brutally beaten, shot, and dumped in the Tallahatchie River for whistling at a white woman. The men who did this were found not guilty by an all white jury. “The next year, knowing that they could never be retried, the two accused men happily admitted in an interview in Look magazine that they had indeed beaten and killed young Till.” I have so much respect for Mr. Bryson for including this darkness in this otherwise lighthearted and funny, funny book. He touches on the rise of greed, consumerism, and the destruction of the environment and beautiful old buildings. He does not shy away from the ugliness of the 1950s and 1960s. This book is a masterpiece. Thank you, Bill Bryson, for writing it. Thank you for all the laughs but also for not covering up or glossing over the ugliness. You are a genius!