Friday, December 14, 2007

The Life and Times of Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson

(Book Review)

I was at a friend's apartment and this book was just lying on the floor. (Most of the Bill Bryson books I read I tend to read because someone else left it lying on the floor.) I flipped through it and it looked kind of interesting, so I asked to borrow it.

"Go ahead," my friend said. "I think you'll enjoy it. That's the only book I remember laughing out loud while I was reading."

This book is Bill Bryson's memoir of growing up during the 1950s.

By the way, strange, isn't it, how even those of us who were born 20 years after the 1950s still feel a kind of nostalgia for the decade? Is it because of some sort of Jungian collective unconscious? Or is it because modern American conservatism has created a mythology in which we are told that the 1950s is some sort of golden age that we must always be trying to return to?

At least in my case (and maybe this holds true for some of you as well) I was not allowed to watch regular TV until I was well into my teens, and so grew up watching re-runs of "The Mickey Mouse Club", "Davy Crockett" "Zorro" and other old shows on the Disney channel, and then once I got a little bit older I graduated to Nick at Night reruns. As far as my TV viewing habits went, I might as well have grown up in the 50s.

(One last thought on the subject: if Japanese movies like "Always" are any indication, the feeling of collective nostalgia for the 1950s is not a phenomenon limited to North America).

In this book Bryson takes us through the decade we all feel like we sort of remember anyway. And there's no better guide than Bill Bryson. I don't read a lot of Bryson (none since I started up this book review project) but every time I do read him I find myself wondering why I don't read more. He's a funny guy. Like my friend, I also found myself laughing out loud several times throughout this book (much to Shoko's annoyance).

(I exaggerate not, by the way, the funniness of this book. Go to the review section at and see if you can count how many people claim this book literally made them laugh out loud.)

It is definitely easy to romanticize the 50s as the last decade when kids were allowed to be kids. When you could roam all over the neighborhood and ride your bike everywhere without anyone worrying over your safety. When children actually went outside to play instead of being stuck inside with cable TV, DVD players, myspace and the internet.

"The most striking difference between then and now was how many kids there were then. America had thirty-two million children aged twelve or under in the mid 1950s, and four million babies were plopping onto the changing mats every year. So there were kids everywhere, all the time, in densities now unimaginable, but especially whenever anything interesting or unusual happened...
...The other difference from those days was that kids were always outdoors--I knew kids who were pushed out the back door at eight in the morning and not allowed back in until five unless they were on fire or actively bleeding--and they were always looking for something to do. If you stood on any corner with a bike--any corner anywhere--over a hundred children, many of whom you had never seen before, would appear and ask you where you were going."

What a difference between now and then. Growing up in the suburbs in the 1980s the houses were so far apart you hardly knew anyone, and my mother was so terrified of cars speeding by we weren't allowed out to go out of our own yard until 3rd grade. I didn't even know most of the kids on my street (this was partly because we were sent to private schools). And, as Bryson notes during the end of the book, these days no one is outside.

Other parts of the book though are timeless and not related only to the 1950s but to childhood in general. Such as Bryson's description of how time passes:
"One of the great myths of life is that childhood passes quickly. In fact, because time moves more slowly in Kid World--five times more slowly in a classroom on a hot afternoon, eight times more slowly on any car journey of over fives miles (rising to eighty-six times more slowly when driving across Nebraska or Pennsylvania lengthwise), and so slowly during the last week before birthdays, Christmases and summer vacations as to be functionally immeasurable--it goes on for decades when measured in adult terms. It is adult life that is over in a twinkling."
So true.

Many other universal truths of childhood life, no matter what the decade, are also found within the pages. Bryson's all too true description of trying to go to the bathroom while bundled up in winter clothing had me laughing out loud in the middle of the shopping mall.

Typical of Bryson, he manages to mix in some serious points along with the humor. He has an excellent chapter dealing with the dark sides of the 50s, the racism, the anti-communist hysteria, the love of nuclear bombs, and the CIA assisted Coup in Guatemala. All of which he does an excellent job retelling and all of which should be read by every American. (The Guatemala episode especially has a tendency to disappear down the memory hole these days).

In fact, because so many people seem to be unaware of this episode in American history, perhaps it's worth taking the time to quote it at length here:

"In 1950, Guatemala elected a reformist government--'the most democratic Guatemala ever had', according to the historian Howard Zinn--under Jacobo Arbenz, an educated landowner of good intentions. Arbenz's election was a blow for the American company United Fruit, which had run Guatemala as a private fiefdom since the nineteenth century. The company owned nearly everything of importance in the country--the ports, the railways, the communications networks, banks, stores, and some 550,000 acres of farmland--paid little taxes and could count confidently on the support of a string of repressive dictators.

Some 85 per cent of United Fruit's land was left more or less permanently idle. This kept fruit prices high, but Guatemalans poor. Arbenz, who was the son of Swiss immigrants and something of an idealist, thought this was unfair and decided to remake the country along more democratic lines. He established free elections, ended racial discrimination, encouraged a free press, introduced a forty-hour week, legalized unions and ended government corruption.

Needless to say, most people loved him. In an attempt to reduce poverty, he devised a plan to nationalize, at a fair price, much of the idle farmland--including 1,700 acres of his own--and redistribute it in the form of smallholdings to a hundred thousand landless peasants. To that end Arbenz's government expropriated 400,000 acres of land from United Fruit, and offered as compensation the sum the company had claimed the land was worth for tax purposes--$1,185,000.

United Fruit now decided the land was worth $16 million actually--a sum the Guatemalan government couldn't afford to pay. When Arbenz turned down United Fruit's demand for the higher level of compensation, the company complained to the United States government, which responded by underwriting a coup.

Arbenz fled his homeland in 1954 and a new, more compliant leader named Carlos Castillo was installed. To help him on his way, the CIA gave him a list of seventy thousand 'questionable individuals'--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."

Link of the Day
What's Really Happened During the Surge?

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