This Boy’s Life Summary

Tobias Wolff

This Boy’s Life

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This Boy’s Life Summary

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In his memoir This Boy’s Life (1989), Tobias Wolff recounts his dysfunctional adolescence, as his mother travels around the United States with him. She makes unwise choices regarding her love life, which affects Wolff in several ways. The memoir focuses on how as much as Wolff tries to be “good,” outside influences make that almost impossible for him. The memoir won the Rhea Award and was turned into a Hollywood film.

Toby Wolff lives with his mother, Rosemary. They travel across the country, usually for the sake of men or for making money. At the beginning of the memoir, she takes Toby to Utah because she wants to make money from uranium. The uranium venture is unsuccessful, and when Rosemary’s ex-boyfriend, Roy, appears, his mother turns her attention to him. Roy attempts to act like a family with them, but is also menacing and hints at violence. Toby decides to change his name to Jack, as he enjoys Jack London, and he does not want to be named after his father.

Jack’s father left his mother soon after Jack was born. He lives with Jack’s brother, Geoffrey, and his new wealthy wife. Geoffrey is a student at Princeton. Finally, Rosemary decides to leave Roy and the two head for Seattle. Jack gets into trouble in Seattle, while Rosemary attempts to find a husband. She meets Dwight, who lives in a town outside of Seattle. He seems nice at first as he is trying hard to impress Rosemary. He invites them to live with him, and it becomes obvious that Dwight is more than he seems.

Dwight is openly cruel to Jack and criticizes him at every turn. Dwight ruins almost everything for Jack. He forces him to get a job as a newspaper boy, but takes all his money. When Jack tries to get into extracurricular activities by joining the Boy Scouts, Dwight becomes his scoutmaster. As Jack attempts to lead a normal life and behave, Dwight makes it more difficult for him. Rosemary is ignorant of Dwight’s behavior towards Jack. The only time Dwight shows him positive attention is when he teaches Jack how to fight. Jack constantly gets himself into trouble because of his turbulent life at home. He hangs with a bad crowd and often finds himself in trouble with the authorities.

Jack desires to present himself as good. He applies to private schools pretending that he gets straight As, is an athlete, and never gets into trouble. He forges letters of glowing recommendation. Jack almost believes his own lies. Besides his attempts to go to private school, Jack has dreams of running away. He writes to relatives asking them to let him stay. His uncle offers to let Jack join him in Paris, but he must be adopted by him. Jack is unwilling to let go of his mother, to whom he is so close. Jack attempts to live with Geoffrey for a few months, but is caught forging checks.

Back home, Jack finds out he has received a scholarship to the prestigious Hill School. Mr. Howard, an alumnus of Hill, interviews him and ultimately becomes his mentor. Mr. Howard and his wife show Jack affection and attention that is unfamiliar to him. They buy him new clothes and are generally kind to him. Jack discovers his passion for writing. He realizes it is what got him into Hill, as he equates lying to writing.

As Jack prepares to leave for Hill, Rosemary witnesses Dwight push Jack. Jack falls, landing on a hand that was already injured. Rosemary agrees to leave Dwight, and she lets Jack stay at a friend’s house as he waits to leave for Hill. He stays with his friend Chuck Bulger and promises to behave. Unfortunately, Jack gets caught stealing gasoline from the nearby Welch farm. Jack refuses to apologize, which makes Chuck’s father angry. He attempts to make Jack work at the Welch farm to pay the gasoline off, but they refuse him.

Jack then decides to spend time in California with his father and brother in the summer before heading to Hill. Jack does not get to spend much time with his father, as he soon leaves for Las Vegas with his wife. Sadly, when his father returns, he is arrested and placed into a sanitarium for the rest of the summer. Geoffrey encourages Jack to keep up with his reading and writing, especially his dream of writing a novel. Yet Jack continues to get into trouble.

As Jack finally heads to Hill in Seattle, his mother moves to Washington D.C. to get away from Dwight. He finds her and attempts to strangle her, but is arrested. Jack struggles at Hill and is unable to attain the grades expected of him. He gets kicked out during his senior year. He then joins the army and is shipped off to the Vietnam War. The story continues in the sequel, In Pharoah’s Army.