This book offers a series of reminiscences about growing up in the middle of the twentieth century in Des Moines, Iowa, in a USA that has already largely vanished. Like everything Bryson writes, it is superlatively readable and amusing; it is also thoughtful, elegiac, and nostalgic.
Bryson's parents were both journalists. His father wrote about baseball and there is a certain amount of talk about baseball in the book, but fortunately not too much. The Bryson household seems to have been a relaxed, easygoing environment, except for his father's insistence on penny-pinching.
In consequence, the youthful Bryson was evidently a happy and well-adjusted boy, though this did not prevent him from indulging at times in activities that would have to be labelled mildly delinquent, such as forging driving licences in order to represent himself as old enough to buy beer. Others went further, however, and carried out extensive store thefts of beer. Bryson says he was too cowardly to become involved in these enterprises and so escaped being sent to a correction establishment, unlike his friend who planned them.
Events are often described in a deadpan manner that makes it difficult to know how far to believe them; some are obviously exaggerated for comic effect. Bryson's account of his broken leg is surely a case in point.
Various adults apparently came and looked at him as he lay on the ground with his leg at a funny angle, but no one paid much attention. Eventually his parents turned up and he was taken to see a young Cuban doctor who had little idea what to do but put the leg in plaster for six weeks. When this was removed the leg "spun back into position and everyone was pleasantly surprised." As soon as he stood up, however, he fell over, but by next morning he was fine. His mother took all this in her stride, totally unperturbed both by the accident and his subsequent recovery.
Each chapter is prefaced by a cutting from a newspaper of the time, giving surprising and sometimes shocking details of American life in the 1950s, including the execution of a black man in Alabama for the theft of $1.95 from a white woman. This precedes Chapter 7, which is a digression from Bryson's personal reminiscences. Here he describes the American hydrogen bomb tests in the atmosphere and the appalling excesses of the McCarthy era, when large numbers of US citizens were hounded for their alleged present or past membership of the Communist party. Bryson offers the sobering reflection that if McCarthy had been just a tiny bit more intelligent or likeable he might have become President.
Although Bryson does not make the comparison explicitly, the way the USA reacted to the perceived threat of Communism in the 1950s is remarkably similar to how the "war on terror" is being conducted today, with Islam replacing Communism as the source of all evil. "Thanks to our overweening preoccupation with Communism at home and abroad America became the first nation in modern history to build a war economy in peacetime." The USA spent $350 billion in the eight years of the Eisenhower presidency and 90 per cent of foreign aid was for military expenditures. "We didn't just want to arm ourselves; we wanted to make sure that everybody else was armed too."
Most of the book is considerably lighter in tone than this, however, and Bryson is affectionate about the life and the people he knew as a boy. Even its more alarming aspects, such as the shoe-shop x-ray machines (which I remember from my own boyhood in Britain) and the atomic loo seats, have in retrospect a certain period charm and innocence.
13 October 2006