Childhood in the Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid
Bill Bryson lived in Des Moines, Iowa, during his youth in the 1950’s and early 1960’s. He was living in a country coming fresh off of the second world war, and, as a nation, the United States was experiencing economic prosperity. During this era, people appeared to be oblivious to the dangers that surrounded them, as they enjoyed things such as atom bombs with an invulnerable attitude. Bryson was also born among the largest generation the nation has ever experienced: the baby boomers. During this era, many families began to consider themselves a part of the “middle class,” as many adults found themselves buying more luxury items than they could once afford. This included Bryson’s family, who took part in buying items such as televisions and toasters. Manufactures also marketed to the newest, largest generation: the millions of baby boomer children, who could be easily persuaded into purchasing a multitude of consumer crazes. This group included Bill, who was obsessed with comic books and superheroes. This played a crucial role in Bill transforming into the “Thunderbolt Kid,” a superhero he made up during times which he felt powerless. Bill Bryson describes his hometown, Des Moines, during his childhood, as fairly rural and lackluster. Overall, Bryson’s tone throughout the novel conveyed that his childhood was destined to be filled with boredom; however, he managed to occupy it with excitement as a young boy who was filled with imagination.
Bryson divides his 268 page novel into chapters, each one representing a significant aspect of his childhood. Each chapter is essentially based on related recollected memories from Bryson’s youth alongside (somewhat) correlating tangents to represent the sporadic mind of a child. The novel does not follow or indicate a timeline, as Bryson’s recalled memories come from distinct ages, time periods, and phases of his formative years. In his novel, Bryson emphasizes what he likes and dislikes, and analyzes the positives and negatives of things that were significant to him during his youth. For instance, in chapter eight, “School Days,” Bryson discusses and explains what his early schooling was like. Bryson mentions his hatred for the school environment, and stated that he often would not attend school. However, in the same chapter, Bryson praises his school for its magnificent appearance, stating, “It was, I believe, the handsomest elementary school I have ever seen” (137). Bryson also commonly applies these same analytical tactics to his mother, criticizing her for things such as her cooking, sarcastically referring to the kitchen as the “Burns Unit.” However, Bryson also praises his mother just as often as he finds fault with her, honoring her for being “soft and kind, patient and generous, instantly and sincerely apologetic for every wrong, keen to make amends” (53).
The novel covers Bryson’s experiences and memories from when he was only the age of five or six, up until his early teen years. Bryson develops his memories by adding a modern day point of view and incorporating social commentary on some of the issues which he recalls. For instance, on page 21, Bryson reflects on the stores and businesses that made up his community. He proceeds to elaborate on this by adding, “That was the glory of living in a world that was still largely free of global chains. Every community was special and nowhere was like everywhere else” (21). Bryson develops and stance on a political issue of modern times, where large corporations are overrunning small towns consisting of “mom and pop” shops. Bryson could not have come to this realization during his childhood, thus, Bryson adds modern day commentary to his memories in effort of adding depth to their meaning.
The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid is told in the first person for the entirety of the novel. There are no changes in the point of view as the book is Bill Bryson’s memoir. Bryson mentions historical information and facts, and writes about stories that did not occur to him, yet all of these things are written in his words, his opinions, his bias, and his point of view. Bryson maintains a first person point of view to represent a novel that is based on his experiences and his recollections. Bryson will use phrases such as “I liked,” or “I loved,” thus emphasizing his owning of the novel as a memoir of childhood. However, Bryson also contributes his modern knowledge and wisdom to the novel, in effort to compare the mid 20th century to modern times.
Diction in The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid is generally informal. The circumstances in which Bryson undergoes throughout the novel lack in formality, thus eliciting the use of informal language. This use of common language is exemplified on page 108, when Bryson states, “I didn’t care how babies were made, to tell you the truth. I was far more excited that we were on a secret adventure that our parents didn’t know about and that we were walking through the Woods.” Bryson uses contractions such as “didn’t” in his writing, which are considered to be indicative of informal writing. Bryson also writes using relative clauses while discussing informal matters, such as the example.
Despite Bryson using informal language, he commonly utilizes intricate words, valid similes, and ironic devices to push for a greater imagery. For instance, on page 176, Bryson writes, “…but each was so potently flavorful that it made your eyes water like an untended sprinkler, and so sharply carbonated that it was like swallowing a thousand tiny razor blades. It was wonderful.” In this passage, Bryson takes advantage of similes to add to the imagery, using vivid language to compare two unlike things. Bryson also connects satirical irony to the scene by stating that the carbonated drink, which made one’s eyes water, and felt like razor blades, was “wonderful.” Throughout his novel, Bryson frequently uses hyperboles and exaggerated diction to create a better understanding for how he embellished the things he observed as a child. Bryson uses words such as “exquisite” to define a toy, or “impeccable” to describe a toilet. Bryson also makes hyperbolic claims such as, “We used to get up to eleven feet of snow at one time… and weeks of arctic weather so bitter you would pee icicles” (158), to emphasize the inflated views that he had on things during his youth.
Passage 1: But its sanctum sanctorum was the Tea Room, a place where doting mothers took their daughters for a touch of elegance while shopping. Nothing about the Tea Room remotely interested me until I learned of a ritual that my sister mentioned in passing. It appeared that young visitors were invited to reach in a wooden box containing small gifts, each beautifully wrapped in white tissue and tied with ribbon, and select one to take away as a permanent memento of the occasion. Once my sister passed on to me a present she had acquired and didn’t much care for — a die-cast coach and horses. It was only two and a half inches long, but exquisite in its detailing. The doors opened. The wheels turned. A tiny driver had thin metal reins. The whole thing had obviously been hand-painted by some devoted, underpaid person from the defeated side of the Pacific Ocean. I had never seen, much less owned, such a fine thing before (24).
Passage 2: Once on the open road, Mrs. Vandermesiter was famous over a much wider area. Though her trip to Dahl’s was only about three-quarters of a mile, her progress created scenes reminiscent of the streets of Pamplona when the bulls are running. Motorists and pedestrians alike fled in terror before her. And it was, it must be said, an unnerving sight when Mrs. Vandermeister’s car came toward you down the street. For a start, it looked as if it was driverless, such was her exceeding diminutiveness, and indeed it drove as if driverless, for it was seldom entirely on the road, particularly when bumping around corners. Generally there were sparks coming off the undercarriage from some substantial object—a motorcycle, a garbage can, her own walking frame — that she had collected en route and was now taking with her wherever she went (158-159).
Passage 3: Riverview was an unnerving institution. The roller coaster, a Himalayan massif of aging wood, was the most rickety, confidence-sapping construction ever. The wagons were flocked inside and out with thirty-five years of spilled popcorn and hysterical vomit. It had been built in 1920, and you could feel its age in every groaning joint and cracked cross brace. It was enormous – about four miles long, I believe, and some twelve thousand feet high. It was easily the scariest ride ever built. People didn’t even scream on it; they were much too petrified to emit any kind of noise. As it passed, the ground would tremble with increasing intensity and it would shake loose a shower – actually a kind of avalanche – of dust and ancient bird shit from its filthy rafters. A moment later, there would be a passing rain shower of vomit (207).
Syntax in The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid consists of colloquial language in both simple and complex sentences, as well as everything in between. The purpose of this is to represent the novel as Bryson’s thoughts, opinions, and recollections. Generally, Bryson’s longer and more complex sentences portray more elaborate ideas or are used to describe things, whereas his short and simple sentences are generally used to make sarcastic comments or concise statements. An example of one of Bryson’s longer sentences is on page 138 when he writes:So however bad your school productions were — and ours were always extremely bad, partly because we had no talent and partly because Mrs. De Voto, the music teacher, was a bit ancient and often nodded off at the piano — it felt like you were part of a well-ordered professional undertaking (even when you were standing there holding a long note waiting for Mrs. De Voto’s chin to touch the keyboard, an event that always jerked her back into action with rousing gusto at exactly the spot where she had left off a minute or two before). This extensive sentence illustrates how the novel represents Bryson’s thoughts, as he continuously cuts into his stream of consciousness, leading him to go on tangents. An example of one of Bryson’s shorter sentences occurs while he discusses the invulnerabile view that people had of themselves during the 1950s. Bryson sarcastically writes, “What a joy it was to be indestructible” (73).
Throughout the novel, Bryson uses rhetorical questions to enhance the reader’s acceptance of a first person view, as his rhetorical questions contribute to a cutting stream of consciousness. Despite these scattered sentences, Bryson also attempts to add rhythm and flow to his sentences by using rhetorical devices such as parallel structure. For instance, when Bryson describes the accomplishments of a Guatemalan leader, he writes: “He established free elections, ended racial discrimination, encouraged a free press, introduced a forty-hour work week, legalized unions, and ended government corruption” (133). To pair with varying sentence lengths, Bryson also uses both periodic and loose sentence structure. But its sanctum sanctorum was the Tea Room, a place where doting mothers took their daughters for a touch of elegance while shopping. Nothing about the Tea Room remotely interested me until I learned of a ritual that my sister mentioned in passing. It appeared that young visitors were invited to reach in a wooden box containing small gifts, each beautifully wrapped in white tissue and tied with ribbon, and select one to take away as a permanent memento of the occasion. Once my sister passed on to me a present she had acquired and didn’t much care for — a die-cast coach and horses. It was only two and a half inches long, but exquisite in its detailing. The doors opened. The wheels turned. A tiny driver had thin metal reins. The whole thing had obviously been hand-painted by some devoted, underpaid person from the defeated side of the Pacific Ocean. I have never seen, much less owned, such a fine thing before (24).
Throughout Bryson’s memoir, he frequently utilizes tropes to forge vivid scenes, create satire, and remind the reader of the novel’s point of view. Some of the literary devices which he uses include: similes, imagery, and hyperboles. On page 182, Bryson describes his encounter with a tornado and uses similes and imagery to describe its conditions. Bryson writes:The sky everywhere was wildly, unnaturally dark and heavy and low, and every wisp of cloud in it, from every point in the compass, was being sucked into the central vortex as if being pulled into a black hole. It was like being present at the end of the world. The wind, steady and intense, felt oddly as if it was not pushing from behind, but pulling from the front, like the insistent draw of a magnet. Bryson uses numerous similes in this passage to compare the tornado to other phenomenons, such as black holes and the end of the world, effectively emphasizing the significance and astonishment of the event. In this passage, Bryson also successfully incorporates imagery into his vivid description of the tornado. Using words and phrases such as “unnaturally dark,” “wisp,” “sucked,” and “pulled,” Bryson creates visual images for the reader to imagine, which appeal to his or her sense of vision. Bryson’s writing style is fairly scattered, and he often nonchalantly adds hyperbolic comments throughout his sentences. On page 37, Bryson recalls a moment from his youth when he played an ice hockey game that involved “four thousand kids.” This number is magnified in effort of conveying Bryson’s age, as children commonly exaggerate and irrationally inflate things. He scatters these literary devices throughout his novel, and they are a key aspect of his writing style. Bryson effectively intertwines these tropes into his stories to ameliorate the novel’s enjoyability.
The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid has a great abundance of ironic devices, as Bryson casually employs verbal irony and ironic hyperboles in his style of writing. For instance, in the 1950s, teenagers were greatly looked down upon. Bryson sarcastically adds, in a deprecating manner, that, “When you look at them now, there’s no question that they should have been put down” (128). He makes an exaggerated statement in effort to coincide with the unrealistic views on teenagers. Another instance of irony occurs as he mentions the popularity of the Red Scare during the 1950s. He explains that a great deal of people were accused of Communist relations during this era, and Bryson, of course, makes a comment on the absurdity of the situation. He tells the story of his nonparticipation in civil defense drills at school during the scare of nuclear attacks. Eventually, Bryson was caught evading the drills and sarcastically states that, “Clearly [he] came from a Bolshevik household” (151). Here, Bryson uses the word “clearly” to assert his sarcastic tone, as he exaggerates the severity of the situation. This abundance of sarcasm is a chief aspect of his writing style, adding character to the novel and connecting personally to his stories.
The high frequency use of satire and irony transforms Bryson’s bland stories into entertaining and enjoyable tales. For the duration of his novel, Bryson conveys a satiric and ironic tone through the use of his diction and other literary devices. However, Bryson also remains informative as he discusses the history of the 1950s and what his life was like during that era. He often ties his satiric tone to the informative aspect of his writing, effectively displaying his opinion on certain subjects. For instance, on page 174, Bryson mentions his grandparents’ barn. He continues to state that, “The barn was like a whole-body workout for your immune system” (174). This satirical comment uses a simile to demonstrate Bryson’s opinion of disgust toward the barn by comparing it to a “whole-body workout for your immune system.” Bryson often speaks lowly of his home state, Iowa; however, on pages 172 and 173, he attempts to highlight its positive characteristics, ending his short summary of Iowa’s accomplishments with a sarcastic “Hooray.” Bryson commonly adds comments like these to anecdotes, creating a satiric and ironic tone for the novel. Another instance of Bryson’s tone derives from his anecdote on the Butters boys. Bryson writes:In between times they would menace us. Their specialty was to torment any children smaller than them, which was all children. The Butters were big to begin with but because they were held back year after year, they were much, much larger than any child in their class. By sixth grade some of them were too big to pass through doors. They were ugly, too, and real dumb. They ate squirrels. (Bryson 43)This passage illustrates Bryon’s ability to express his opinion through a satiric tone while still remaining informative. Bryson incorporates short and exaggerative sentences at the end of the passage, creating a platform for Bryson to emphasize his disliking toward the Butters boys.
The central theme of The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid is childhood. Bryson’s novel is primarily based on events during his youth and the emotions and feelings that coincide with them. In many ways, Bryson represented the all-American childhood of the baby boomers.
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