Bill Bryson's travel writing is often hilarious and usually perceptive. In many ways this book – Bryson’s memoir of growing up in Des Moines, Iowa, in the 1950s and 1960s - is also travel writing. In remembering and sharing his past, Bryson takes his readers to another place and time, both of which he vividly evokes in the narrative.
I laughed a lot while listening to Bryson read the audiobook version of his memoir. At times I laughed so much that there was a risk my bus commute would be embarrassing and my driving commute would be dangerous. Bryson has a wonderful ability to find the ridiculous in most situations, as well as in himself, his family and everyone around him. He also has the gift of humorous exaggeration: some of the incidents he writes about are clearly tall tales, or at least tales that have been stretched for effect.
This is not just a memoir, it is also a domestic history of the United States of the 1950s and 1960s: a limited history, it is true, of white Middle America, but an interesting history nevertheless. While Bryson has unashamed nostalgia for some aspects of that history, his criticism of other aspects of US history is pointed.
I’m younger than Bryson (although by less than a decade) and I grew up far from Des Moines. My childhood was in almost all respects quite different from Bryson’s. Nevertheless, his childhood experiences – particularly the experiences of his early childhood – speak to me. In recounting his history, Bryson has the ability to get readers to reflect on their own past. It may be that some early childhood experiences are universal – for example, first days at school and relationships with siblings and friends. For me, Bryson's early childhood experiences are the most interesting part of that part of the books which is a personal memoir. It is fair to say that I found the last part of the book, which deals with Bryson’s teenage years, less engaging than the rest of it. Even though I have sons of my own, I find the shenanigans of teenage boys of limited interest, particularly when those shenanigans involve looking for porn and stealing beer. One thing that struck me about Bryson’s discussion of high school was his take on relationships between white and African American students. I have no doubt that Bryson is sincere when he states that he did not witness racist behaviour. However, I wonder whether his African American high school contemporaries would share that view.
Overall, listening to this audiobook was a great way to spend a few hours. Funny and at times moving, it is more than a series of anecdotes. In a relatively brief book, Bryson manages to cover a lot of territory, from family holidays, to parental eccentricities, to 1950s toys, to cigarette advertising, to atomic testing, to the building of Disneyland … and lots more.