Book Club Discussion: Jan. 26, 2012

Book Club Discussion – The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid


Who would have thought that a humorous memoir of growing up during the idyllic 1950’s inDes Moines,Iowacould engender such differing reactions among our Zion Book Club readers?  And yet, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson has earned the widest variation of reactions in the history of the Book Club!

This autobiographical, deliberately hyperbolic recounting of the author’s formative years recalls an age when children roamed their neighborhoods, free from direct adult supervision.  Indeed, as some of our readers agreed, adults were happy to let the children play outside until called back for the evening meal or bath time.  Children were EXPECTED to run, tumble, climb, get dirty, and generally investigate their surroundings.  If they encountered mischief along the way, the children felt it was an added bonus.  And, boy, did Bill Bryson and his pals enjoy their share of mischief!   From lighting matches and throwing them at each other (which a couple of our readers remembered OTHER kids doing, of course),  to trying to get into the tent at the local fair to see the stripper (can anyone remember the “girlie shows” in a tent at the South Mountain Fair?), to learning to read with Dick and Jane books,  to the joys of discovering practical applications of Newton’s laws of motion by trying to spit a peanut from a third or fourth story balcony into a dining patron’s soup at a local hotel (a direct hit caused a great splash as did spitballs from the top of the now-gone observation tower erected by Thomas Ottenstein in Gettysburg),  Bill took our readers down memory lane through their own childhoods.

Although some of our readers grew up in very rural areas with few children close enough to enjoy nefarious pursuits (or else with parents who had a firmer grip than Bill’s), some could definitely relate to explorations both legal and illegal (but what child grasps that distinction?), summer days and nights that seemed to go on forever, and the feeling of something delicious and new just around the corner waiting to be discovered.  Evidently,ColtPark inGettysburg was a wild and wonderful neighborhood with children running amok until called home from their games and discoveries!

Along the way, Mr. Bryson interspersed his recollections with historical background that grounded the reader in the reality of the 1950’s.  At times,U.S.policy, both foreign and domestic, had less than stellar moments with scant or no regard for human rights (bolstering puppet governments in Central America soU.S.companies could thrive there at the expense of the natives’ democratic ambitions, the denial of civil rights to black Americans).  From a child’s viewpoint, the Cuban Missile Crisis seemed remote and the need to hide under desks to escape nuclear fallout (these drills were remembered by many readers) was deemed ridiculous.  However, these were all just annoying and brief interruptions of the author’s happy path throughDes Moines.

Some readers felt Mr. Bryson’s humor ran flat at times, and that the different chapters were repetitive.  Others felt the book offered a welcome respite from deeper subjects and were hugely entertained by this child’s eye view of becoming of age.  Two readers gave it two thumbs up, two gave it one thumb up, four were neutral, one gave it one thumb down and one gave it two thumbs down.  The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid certainly created a vibrant discussion of all the readers’ childhoods and an agreement with Mr. Bryson’s opinion that the innocence and freedom of the 1950’s is probably gone forever.  To put it in a couple of our readers’ terms, “That ship has sailed.”  Still, anyone with a nostalgic view of the 1950’s would probably enjoy this book.