The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir

by Bill Bryson

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From one of the world's most beloved writers and New York Times bestselling author of A Walk in the Woods and The Body, a vivid, nostalgic, and utterly hilarious memoir of growing up in the 1950s.

Bill Bryson was born in the middle of the American century—1951—in the middle of the United States—Des Moines, Iowa—in the middle of the largest generation in American history—the baby boomers. As one of the best and funniest writers alive, he is perfectly positioned to mine his memories of a totally all-American childhood for 24-carat memoir gold. Like millions of his generational peers, Bill Bryson grew up with a rich fantasy life as a superhero. In his case, he ran around his house and neighborhood with an old football jersey with a thunderbolt on it and a towel about his neck that served as his cape, leaping tall buildings in a single bound and vanquishing awful evildoers (and morons)—in his head—as "The Thunderbolt Kid."

Using this persona as a springboard, Bill Bryson re-creates the life of his family and his native city in the 1950s in all its transcendent normality—a life at once completely familiar to us all and as far away and unreachable as another galaxy. It was, he reminds us, a happy time, when automobiles and televisions and appliances (not to mention nuclear weapons) grew larger and more numerous with each passing year, and DDT, cigarettes, and the fallout from atmospheric testing were considered harmless or even good for you. He brings us into the life of his loving but eccentric family, including affectionate portraits of his father, a gifted sportswriter for the local paper and dedicated practitioner of isometric exercises, and of his mother, whose job as the home furnishing editor for the same paper left her little time for practicing the domestic arts at home. The many readers of Bill Bryson’s earlier classic, A Walk in the Woods, will greet the reappearance in these pages of the immortal Stephen Katz, seen hijacking literally boxcar loads of beer. He is joined in the Bryson gallery of immortal characters by the demonically clever Willoughby brothers, who apply their scientific skills and can-do attitude to gleefully destructive ends.

Warm and laugh-out-loud funny, and full of his inimitable, pitch-perfect observations, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid is as wondrous a book as Bill Bryson has ever written. It will enchant anyone who has ever been young.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780767926317
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 10/17/2006
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 48,182
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Bill Bryson's bestselling books include A Walk in the WoodsThe Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, and A Short History of Nearly Everything (which won the Aventis Prize in Britain and the Descartes Prize, the European Union's highest literary award). He was chancellor of Durham University, England's third oldest university, from 2005 to 2011, and is an honorary fellow of Britain's Royal Society.


Hanover, New Hampshire

Date of Birth:


Place of Birth:

Des Moines, Iowa


B.A., Drake University, 1977

Read an Excerpt

Burns Unit

The only downside of my mother’s working was that it put a little pressure on her with regard to running the home and particularly with regard to dinner, which frankly was not her strong suit anyway. My mother always ran late and was dangerously forgetful into the bargain. You soon learned to stand aside about ten to six every evening, for it was then that she would fly in the back door, throw something in the oven, and disappear into some other quarter of the house to embark on the thousand other household tasks that greeted her each evening. In consequence she nearly always forgot about dinner until a point slightly beyond way too late.  As a rule you knew it was time to eat when you could hear baked potatoes exploding in the oven.

We didn’t call it the kitchen in our house. We called it the Burns Unit.  

“It’s a bit burned,” my mother would say apologetically at every meal, presenting you with a piece of meat that looked like something — a much-loved pet perhaps — salvaged from a tragic house fire. “But I think I scraped off most of the burned part,” she would add, overlooking that this included every bit of it that had once been flesh. 

Happily, all this suited my father.  His palate only responded to two tastes — burnt and ice cream — so everything suited him so long as it was sufficiently dark and not too startlingly flavorful.  Theirs truly was a marriage made in heaven for no one could burn food like my mother or eat it like my dad. 

As part of her job, my mother bought stacks of housekeeping magazines — House Beautiful, House and Garden, Better Homes and Gardens — and I read these with a curious avidity, partly because they were always lying around and in our house all idle moments were spent reading something, and partly because they depicted lives so absorbingly at variance with our own. The housewives in my mother’s magazines were so collected, so organized, so calmly on top of things, and their food was perfect — their lives were perfect. They dressed up to take their food out of the oven!  There were no black circles on the ceiling above their stoves, no mutating goo climbing over the sides of their forgotten saucepans. Children didn’t have to be ordered to stand back every time they opened their oven doors.  And their foods — baked Alaska, lobster Newburg, chicken cacciatore — why, these were dishes we didn’t even dream of, much less encounter, in Iowa.  

Like most people in Iowa in the 1950s, we were more cautious eaters in our house.* On the rare occasions when we were presented with food with which we were not comfortable or familiar — on planes or trains or when invited to a meal cooked by someone who was not herself from Iowa — we tended to tilt it up carefully with a knife and examine it from every angle as if it determining whether it might need to be defused.  Once on a trip to San Francisco my father was taken by friends to a Chinese restaurant and he described it to us afterwards in the somber tones of someone recounting a near-death experience. 

“And they eat it with sticks, you know,” he added knowledgeably.

“Goodness!” said my mother.

“I would rather have gas gangrene than go through that again,” my father added grimly.

In our house we didn’t eat:

• pasta, rice, cream cheese, sour cream, garlic, mayonnaise, onions, corned beef, pastrami, salami, or foreign food of any type, except French toast;
• bread that wasn’t white and at least 65 percent air;
• spices other than salt, pepper and maple syrup; 
• fish that was any shape other than rectangular and not coated in bright orange breadcrumbs, and then only on Fridays and only when my mother remembered it was Friday, which in fact was not often;
• seafood of any type but especially seafood that looked like large insects; 
• soups not blessed by Campbell’s and only a very few of those;
• anything with dubious regional names like “pone,” or “gumbo” or foods that had at any time been an esteemed staple of slaves or peasants.

All other foods of all types — curries, enchiladas, tofu, bagels, sushi, couscous, yogurt, kale, rocket, Parma ham, any cheese that was not a vivid bright yellow and shiny enough to see your reflection in — had either not yet been invented or was yet unknown to us. We really were radiantly unsophisticated. I remember being surprised to learn at quite an advanced age that a shrimp cocktail was not, as I had always imagined, a pre-dinner alcoholic drink with a shrimp in it. 

All our meals consisted of leftovers. My mother had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of foods that had already been to the table, sometimes many times.  Apart from a few perishable dairy products, everything in the fridge was older than I was, sometimes by many years. (Her oldest food possession of all, it more or less goes without saying, was a fruitcake that was kept in a metal tin and dated from the colonial period.)  I can only assume that my mother did all of her cooking in the 1940s so that she could spend the rest of her life surprising herself with what she could find under cover at the back of the fridge.  I never knew her to reject a food.  The rule of thumb seemed to be that if you opened the lid and the stuff inside didn’t make you actually recoil and take at least one staggered step backwards, it was deemed OK to eat.

Both of my parents had grown up in the Great Depression and neither of them ever threw anything away if they could possibly avoid it.  My mother routinely washed and dried paper plates, and smoothed out for reuse spare aluminum foil. If you left a pea on your plate, it became part of future meal. All our sugar came in little packets spirited out of restaurants in deep coat pockets, as did our jams, jellies, crackers (oyster and saltine), tartar sauces, some of our ketchup and butter, all of our napkins, and a very occasional ashtray; anything that came with a restaurant table really. One of the happiest moments in my parents’ life was when maple syrup started to be served in small disposable packets and they could add those to the household hoard.

*In fact like most other people in America. It is perhaps worth noting that the leading American food writer of the age, Duncan Hines, author of the hugely successful Adventures in Eating, declared with pride that he never ate food with French names if he could possibly help it. Hines’s other boast was that he did not venture out of America until he was seventy years old, when he made a trip to Europe. He disliked nearly everything he found there, especially the food.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“Bill Bryson’s laugh-out-loud pilgrimage through his Fifties childhood in heartland America is a national treasure. It’s full of insights, wit, and wicked adolescent fantasies.”
—Tom Brokaw

“Bryson is unparalleled in his ability to cut a culture off at the knees in a way that is so humorous and so affectionate that those being ridiculed are laughing too hard to take offense.”
The Wall Street Journal

“A cross between de Tocqueville and Dave Barry, Bryson writes about…America in a way that’s both trenchantly observant and pound-on-the-floor, snort-root-beer-out-of-your-nose funny.”
San Franciso Examiner

“Bill Bryson could write an essay about dryer lint or fever reducers and still make us laugh out loud.”
Chicago Sun-Times

“Bryson is…great company…a lumbering, droll, neatnik intellectual who comes off as equal parts Garrison Keillor, Michael Kinsley, and…Dave Barry.”
New York Times Book Review

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The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 204 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Bill Bryson's books about cris crossing the world and experiencing different cultures are hilarious and even occasionally, touching. In this new book, however, he deals with his upbringing in the Central U.S. in Iowa. Bryson proves himself to be a renaissance man, writing about growing up and his strained relationship with his father. Everybody who's expierenced this, which is many, can relate. Bryson is at his FUNNIEST, WRYEST and most touching in this book. It'll make you laugh and maybe even cry. If you're the sensitive sort. This is one of the three books in the past few months that made me laugh out loud. Repeatedly. The others are 'Dave Barry's Money Secrets' a send up of investment books and Martha Boltons 'Maybe Life's Just Not That Into You' an EXTRAORDINARILY FUNNY spoof on self help books. I hope Bryson writes more books centering on his youth. Although I cannot relate in the least to growing up in this place called Iowa.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
In Bill Bryson's The Life and TImes of the Thunderbolt Kid, he makes an exciting memoir of his formative years in the middle of the country. He retells the deailed past of his childhoods adventurous innocenc. Taking place during a politically hostile time, the 50's brought along its own interesting story. As Bill grew up his alter ego kicked in and thus the Thunderbolt Kid emerged as the hero of Des Moines, Iowa by narrating this hysterical comic series of stories. This story hit close to home. SInce I live in Des Moines I really made a connection to the setting. The multiple stories are all humorous and even more humorous knowing the town they're taking place. The authors style is humorous making every short tale have a kick to it. Bill and his buddies did all sorts of mischevious acts around town just to entertain themselves from utter boredom. Bill himself was a man of comedy, he enjoyed being the joker. Bill wrote a very accurate and detailed memoir that was quite refreshing to read and laugh. I hope to read more from this funny author.
imlori444 More than 1 year ago
This book is everything I hoped it would be and more! It was a glimpse back in time to when I was growing up (in the 50's and on). Some of the things he wrote about I remember, and some refreshed my memory. His use of humor throughout makes you feel like his pal, and makes you laugh at some of the weird things that our country went through. I laughed out loud when he described his crazy relatives, but even more, I felt a sense of nostalgia for the carefree way things used to be when we were kids, before the invention of modern toys and computers and other gadgets.
MARcY More than 1 year ago
My husband and I rarely share similar taste in books ( he business, me fiction/biographies), but after catching myself laughing out loud in public while reading this tale, I insisted he give it a read. We both now pass it on as gifts to contemparies. If you or your parents are baby boomers, Bryson's childhood memories will resonate with you. If you can remember the days when parents allowed their children to go around the neighborhood without fear or wish for those times again, you will get a kick out of Thunderbolt Kid.
contact_sport More than 1 year ago
Great book that made me laugh and cry at the same time.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very entertaining and worth reading again and again.
nb5newyork More than 1 year ago
Great book. Loved it all!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A very entertaining book about Des Moines, IA as a child growing up. Attention to detail was noted. Very funny descriptions and memories of Des Moines.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Bill Bryson's "The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid" was a great, nostalgic trip into his childhood and youth, as well as my own. I remember the days of tying a towel around my neck so that I could fly like Superman! A fellow Baby Boomer, I laughed and got a little misty at some of the common experiences of growing up in America in the fifties and sixties that Bryson describes in his usual wonderful ways. I love his style of writing and can easily identify with this story. Although I didn't try to verify any of his many listed statistics about life in America during the described eras, I have to feel saddened at how much of our national productiveness has been lost. We used to be a nation that provided products to the world, but now only seem to be consumers. And what's worse, the products we have to choose from are not always of a very good quality, despite the ever increasing costs to purchase them. But if you are a Bill Bryson fan, I think that this is a book you will enjoy. At the very least, it will get you to remember some of the things you did or that happened in your youth that you may have forgotten, or not thought of in quite a few years.
JYakus More than 1 year ago
Anyone who grew up in the 50's or was raised by those who did will appreciate this book. The "Toity Jar" was classic and hysterically funny, it reminded me of my child hood. If you want to start reading and be entertained and taught a bit of history at the same time, read this book. Bill Bryson is a genious. He'd probably laugh at that comment, but his wit makes me want to read more. I bought 3 more books of his after I finished The Thunderbolt Kid. You won;t be disappointed.
annabanana685 More than 1 year ago
This is a wonderful memoir and it will resonate with anyone who was a kid in the late 50's and early 60's-especially midwesterners. He paints a wonderful picture of Iowa in the days before TV and internet shrank the world. It is both laugh out loud funny and touchingly sentimental.
szmzw on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
good for car ride with baby boomers
bookgal123 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a funny, insightful look into life in the Midwest in the 1950's. Bryson reads his own prose, and his dry delivery only adds to the charm. I can also highly recommend the format.
bpompon on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I love Bill Bryson! This was an especially funny book, since I grew up in Iowa at about the same time.
theeccentriclady on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I had read A Walk In The Woods several years ago and really enjoyed it. I was not disapointed with this book either. Bill has a great way of making you visualize what he is talking about that just leaves you laughing out loud. I have to say the ending was bitter sweet. I find myself missing these simpler times and hate seeing our old down towns die. I enjoyed the funny walk back down memory lane.
sallysvenson on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It always seems that the next Bryson book you read can't possibly be as good as the last. But it always is. Bryson is one of our best contemporary humorists--his prose always precise, his good-humored affection for his subjects palpable. As he pointed out, his childhood was so normal and happy that little could be said about it, so, instead, he has written a graceful essay about the 1950s of his youth into which his family now and then hilariously intrudes. I find it remarkable that Bryson, who has spent so much of his life abroad, can still write such an unequivocally American book.
expat-bookworm on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Bill Bryson¿s The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid is subtitled "Travels Through My Childhood" on my copy of the British edition paperback. Halfway through reading this wonderfully humorous memoir, I realized that I was reading about my own childhood ¿ great chunks of it at any rate. We moved around quite a bit when I was a youngster in the 1970¿s, but the flatlands of West Texas, the cave-riddled hills of rural central Tennessee, and the suburbs of northeastern Kansas were virtually identical to Bryson¿s own Des Moines of the 1950¿s. Never before have I read a book that evoked such clear memories of so many items that I¿d completely forgotten about. Lincoln Logs, for instance, is a toy I haven¿t thought of in many, many years (and, as a kid, I never knew that peeing on them would bleach the logs white). The following excerpts about NeHi soda pop provided not only a visual in my brain but resurrected the distinct taste in my mouth all the way to the salivatory stage: NeHi was the pop of small towns ¿ I don¿t know why ¿ and it had the intensest flavour and most vivid colours of any products yet cleared by the Food and Drug Administration for human consumption. It came in six select flavours ¿ grape, strawberry, orange, cherry, lime-lemon (never `lemon-lime¿) and root beer ¿ but each was so potently flavoured 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. . . . (Grape was the one flavour that could actually make you hallucinate; I once saw the edge of the universe while drinking grape NeHi.)Grape happened to me my favorite flavor of NeHi; I don¿t recall ever seeing the root beer flavor but Kansas ¿ my memories from the latter portion of my adolescence are the most vivid ¿ was strictly A&W territory anyway with possibly the last A&W Root Beer Restaurant left in America at that time (it wasn¿t until my first visit to Bangkok many years later that I discovered another outlet, astounded it had gone international).A few pages later, Bryson discusses potluck dinners. This brought back distinct memories of attending various church or school social events featuring a large variety of enormous meatloafs and other strange foods, similarly "presided over by armies of immense, chuckling women who had arms and necks that sagged in an impossible manner, like really wet clothes." One or two of these socials occurred in the very 1950¿s-like small town of Waterloo, Iowa, and Bryson¿s descriptions of the tree-lined boulevards and old homes with the wraparound porches reminded me of a visit to my great aunt and uncle on the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary in the late 1970¿s or early 1980¿s. This passage, among others, positively transported me back to a hot summer¿s evening in Waterloo: On the few nights when we weren¿t at a church social, we had enormous meals at my grandparents¿ house, often on a table carried out to the lawn. (It seemed important to people in those days to share dinner with as many insects as possible.) Uncle Dee would be there, of course, burping away, and Uncle Jack from Wapello, who was notable for never managing to finish a sentence.I can almost hear the conversations of those distant relatives I¿d never met before that trip, accompanied by my mom and a few select members of her side of the family (having flown to Kansas City from New Jersey and California for the drive up to Waterloo). Most of the whispering seemed to be about "Crazy Larry" ¿ I believe he was my second- or third-cousin ¿ who, supposedly, has been an agent for the CIA! Pretty heady stuff for a small-town teenager like myself. It might say something about the perceived "oddity" about the Iowa branch of the family that we only visited them once in all the years that we lived in Kansas, just four hours or so away¿This book is full of priceless gems. Take, for example, the passage on building plastic mod
Harrod on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Delightful as always
chrisod on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Growing up in the 50s is not that much different than what I experienced growing up in the 70s. Because of that, this book resonated quite well with me, and I disturbed those around me multiple times by laughing out loud as I read. Highly recommended for anybody from the Boomer or Gen X generations.
little-sparrow on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A humorous look at what it was like growing up in the 50's and 60's. Parts of this book I thought were really funny, but other parts I found boring and just wanted to skip over them. Overall, it was a good book, but not nearly as entertaining as "A Walk In The Woods," by the same author.
iluvvideo on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A wonderful trip down memory lane. This is the first book from Bill Bryson I have read and I liked it a lot. He's about 6 years older than I am, so many of his experiences resonated for me as well. I was especially amazed at how America has changed in the years between then and now. Life was simpler, slower and full of adventures. This book provided a glimpse back to that era and American life in the 1950s and 1960s.
nog on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Bryson is exactly 16 months older than I, and boy did he nail down what growing up in the 50's was like. There's also a weird coincidence of his siblings and their ages -- smack on with my brother and sister. I would call it an amusing trip down memory lane.
MarysGirl on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Finished this on my bicycle trip following the Erie Canal. It was fun, but not my favorite Bryson book. He's only six months older than I am and I grew up in the Midwest, so his stories were quite nostalgic for me. My main problem was with his overly snarky tone. I'm sure it was a style choice. This is a memoir of his childhood and, at that age, everyone else is stupid, but I found it a bit much. His tone was much more self-deprecating in "A Walk in the Woods" and - I felt - much funnier.
DanaJean on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The Thunderbolt Kid is a very nostalgic look back at Bill Bryson's childhood during the 50's and 60's. I think people who've lived during the same time period will appreciate the humor about growing up in that simpler era. Very witty, funny, poignant, I recommend the story as a chance to think back to things that may have slipped your mind. It made me very wistful at times, and glad the world has moved on at others. I could relate to this book.
addunn3 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Excellent review of the 50's from a youngster's point of view.