Bill Bryson’s memoir, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid
(2006), focuses Bryson’s childhood growing up in Des Moines, Iowa during the 1950s and 1960s. Bryson presents the events of his youth—both within the nuclear family and in the nation as a whole—as seen through the eyes of his childhood alter ego, the Thunderbolt Kid. The Thunderbolt Kid has a superpower—he can vaporize people.
The beginning of the book delves into where Bryson comes from. His father, Bill Sr., was a renowned sports writer for The Des Moines Register
, the top paper in the city. Bill’s mother, Mary, also wrote for the paper as well as Better Homes and Gardens, House Beautiful,
and Good Housekeeping
. Coming from parents who were writers, it’s not surprising that Bill Bryson grows up to be a bestselling writer. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid
reflects on childhood during the baby boomer generation, to which Bryson belonged. The generation was so named because after World War II, there was a significant increase in the population.
Despite this, young Bill decides that he’s been adopted. Not only that, he determines that he’s not an earthling—kind of like Superman. After he discovers a football jersey bearing a lightning bolt, his childhood self feels this is sufficient evidence of his theory. He is convinced that King Voltron of Planet Electro sent him to earth. In addition to vaporizing those he considers moronic, he imagines that his ThunderVision allows him to see through women’s clothing.
The Thunderbolt Kid must survive family vacations and school—he’s forced to attend the former and often skips the latter, getting into trouble when he does bother to show up for his lessons. The quintessential 1950s kid, he gets a part-time job delivering newspapers on a paper route. He writes about his distrust of all adults and the effect of the relativity of time while awaiting Christmas each year. He reflects with fondness on the countless hours he spent reading comic books and his weekly trips to the movie theater with his mom.
As previously mentioned, it’s not just his childhood that takes center stage in this memoir. Bryson also recounts what was going on in America in his youth. New inventions—like TV dinners—and prosperity after World War II filled citizens with optimism. But not everything was perfect; people still worried about diseases such as polio. They worried about contrasting politics and governments, embodied by the rise of Communism. They worried about nuclear holocausts and World War III. The “life and times of the Thunderbolt Kid” were a dichotomy
of looking forward to the future and at the same time, dreading it.
Bryson’s reflections are not so much relevant because of the places and ways of thinking that have come and gone since his childhood, but because the views of his childhood have so greatly influenced America and the world during the maturation of the baby boomer generation. Bryson writes about his childhood into his teenage years, when cigarettes, alcohol, and stealing without getting caught occupied his thoughts. At the end of The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid
, Bill Bryson determines that the world would be a better place if it still existed as it had in the 1950s and 1960s, but that it never will again. The book also describes the start of Bryson’s friendship with Stephen Katz, with whom Bryson traveled on several occasions.
Bryson primarily writes about the English language, science, and travel. Though he was born in the United States, he’s spent most of his adult life living in Britain. From 2005 to 2011, he was the chancellor of Durham University in North East England. The book that launched his fame in England was Notes from a Small Island
, published in 1995. The book was accompanied by a television series about traveling through Britain. In 2003, Bryson’s book, A Short History of Nearly Everything
, was published to widespread praise.
Bryson has received more than ten honorary doctorate degrees from universities in Britain and the United States alike. He won the Aventis Prize in 2004, and a year later, he won the EU Descartes Prize, both for A Short History of Nearly Everything
. In 2005, he was presented with the President’s Award from the Royal Society of Chemistry, and in 2007, he won the Bradford Washburn Award. He was awarded the Kenneth B. Myer Award in 2012. He was made an honorary Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2006 and won the James Joyce Award in 2007. In 2006, he was given a key to the city of Des Moines, and October 21 of that year was declared “Bill Bryson, The Thunderbolt Kid, Day.”