Bryson, Bill. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. London: Black Swan, 2007. ISBN 978-0-552-77254-9.
What could be better than growing up in the United States in the 1950s? Well, perhaps being a kid with super powers as the American dream reached its apogee and before the madness started! In this book, humorist, travel writer, and science populariser extraordinaire Bill Bryson provides a memoir of his childhood (and, to a lesser extent, coming of age) in Des Moines, Iowa in the 1950s and '60s. It is a thoroughly engaging and charming narrative which, if you were a kid there, then will bring back a flood of fond memories (as well as some acutely painful ones) and if you weren't, to appreciate, as the author closes the book, “What a wonderful world it was. We won't see its like again, I'm afraid.”

The 1950s were the golden age of comic books, and whilst shopping at the local supermarket, Bryson's mother would drop him in the (unsupervised) Kiddie Corral where he and other offspring could indulge for free to their heart's content. It's only natural a red-blooded Iowan boy would discover himself to be a superhero, The Thunderbolt Kid, endowed with ThunderVision, which enabled his withering gaze to vapourise morons. Regrettably, the power seemed to lack permanence, and the morons so dispersed into particles of the luminiferous æther had a tedious way of reassembling themselves and further vexing our hero and his long-suffering schoolmates. But still, more work for The Thunderbolt Kid!

This was a magic time in the United States—when prosperity not only returned after depression and war, but exploded to such an extent that mean family income more than doubled in the 1950s while most women still remained at home raising their families. What had been considered luxuries just a few years before: refrigerators and freezers, cars and even second cars, single family homes, air conditioning, television, all became commonplace (although kids would still gather in the yard of the neighbourhood plutocrat to squint through his window at the wonder of colour TV and chuckle at why he paid so much for it).

Although the transformation of the U.S. from an agrarian society to a predominantly urban and industrial nation was well underway, most families were no more than one generation removed from the land, and Bryson recounts his visits to his grandparents' farm which recall what was lost and gained as that pillar of American society went into eclipse.

There are relatively few factual errors, but from time to time Bryson's narrative swallows counterfactual left-wing conventional wisdom about the Fifties. For example, writing about atomic bomb testing:

Altogether between 1946 and 1962, the United States detonated just over a thousand nuclear warheads, including some three hundred in the open air, hurling numberless tons of radioactive dust into the atmosphere. The USSR, China, Britain, and France detonated scores more.

Sigh…where do we start? Well, the obvious subtext is that U.S. started the arms race and that other nuclear powers responded in a feeble manner. In fact, the U.S. conducted a total of 1030 nuclear tests, with a total of 215 detonated in the atmosphere, including all tests up until testing was suspended in 1992, with the balance conducted underground with no release of radioactivity. The Soviet Union (USSR) did, indeed, conduct “scores” of tests, to be precise 35.75 score with a total of 715 tests, with 219 in the atmosphere—more than the U.S.—including Tsar Bomba, with a yield of 50 megatons. “Scores” indeed—surely the arms race was entirely at the instigation of the U.S.

If you've grown up in he U.S. in the 1950s or wished you did, you'll want to read this book. I had totally forgotten the radioactive toilets you had to pay to use but kids could wiggle under the door to bask in their actinic glare, the glories of automobiles you could understand piece by piece and were your ticket to exploring a broad continent where every town, every city was completely different: not just another configuration of the same franchises and strip malls (and yet recall how exciting it was when they first arrived: “We're finally part of the great national adventure!”)

The 1950s, when privation gave way to prosperity, yet Leviathan had not yet supplanted family, community, and civil society, it was utopia to be a kid (although, having been there, then, I'd have deemed it boring, but if I'd been confined inside as present-day embryonic taxpayers in safetyland are I'd have probably blown things up. Oh wait—Willoughby already did that, twelve hours too early!). If you grew up in the '50s, enjoy spending a few pleasant hours back there; if you're a parent of the baby boomers, exult in the childhood and opportunities you entrusted to them. And if you're a parent of a child in this constrained century? Seek to give your child the unbounded opportunities and unsupervised freedom to explore the world which Bryson and this humble scribbler experienced as we grew up.

Vapourising morons with ThunderVision—we need you more than ever, Thunderbolt Kid!

A U.S. edition is available.

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