Bill Bryson’s first travel book opened with the immortal line, “I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.” In this hilarious new memoir, he travels back to explore the kid he once was and the weird and wonderful world of 1950s America. He modestly claims that this is a book about not very much: about being small and getting much larger slowly. But for the rest of us, it is a laugh-out-loud book that will speak volumes – especially to anyone who has ever been young.
In this memoir of growing up in Des Moines, Iowa, in the 1950s-60s, Bill Bryson covers the gamete. Topics humorously covered include: baseball, the first TVs, soda pop and candy, vacations, Disneyland, Dick and Jane, strange relatives, movie matinees, paper routes, and visits to Grandpa's farm. He also injects some serious material, including nuclear testing, "duck and cover" drills (which I did as a child and, as he correctly notes, we'd all be dead if SAC base was hit anyway), Polio, and Communism.
While most of this memoir was quite enjoyable, I do have a few issues with it. Some of these may be because Bryson moved to the UK as a young adult and has basically lived his whole adult life there. First there are still forty plus Younker's Department stores all over the Midwest (Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan...) and the one I often visited in the 60's still had a great book department, although it wasn't tucked away in a corner like the one in Des Moines apparently was. And his mention of Bishop's Cafeteria and the lack of chain stores in the 50's totally negates the fact that Bishops was a chain. As a child I personally loved going to the one in Omaha. There were other chain hamburger places too. Certainly they were not as prevalent as chains now, but they did exist on a small scale.
But, all in all, Bryson achieves a nice, pleasant, light hearted mix of stories with a minimum amount of serious social commentary, and most of the stories are presented in a conversational way, sort of meandering through several funny bits until he eventually reaches a conclusion. The stories are told from a child's point of view, or at least Bryson looking back at things now as he saw them then. While I basically enjoyed it, I can see that it might appeal more to a little bit older audience, especially baby boomers. It could also be that men are going to relate to Bryson much better than I did on some of the stories, especially those involving peeing on things, something young girls are not noted for doing.
Very Highly Recommended for baby boomers
(On a side note, my brother and I were just discussing the likelihood of nuclear fallout reaching where we grew up and it looks like we were right.)
“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. pg. 15
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. pg. 17
So that was the end of the toity jar, though it worked out for the best as these things often do. After that, all my mother had to do was mention that she had something good in a jar in the fridge and my father would get a sudden urge to take us to Bishop's, a cafeteria downtown, which was the best possible outcome, for Bishop's was the finest restaurant that ever existed. pg. 19
The New Utica department store downtown had pneumatic tubes rising from each register: the cash from your purchase was placed in a cylinder; then inserted in the tubes and fired - like a torpedo - to a central collection point, such was the urgency to get the money counted and back into the economy. A visit to the New Utica was like a trip to a future century. pg. 22
The most striking difference between then and now was how many kids there were then. America had thirty-two million children aged twelve or under in the mid-1950s, and four million new babies were plopping onto the changing mats every year. So there were kids everywhere, all the time, in densities now unimaginable, but especially when anything interesting or unusual happened. pg. 36
It was an astonishment to me even when quite young to think that my mother and her siblings had come from the same genetic stock. I believe she may have felt a little that way herself. pg. 81
It turned out that children, with their trim little bodies and love of milk, were particularly adept at absorbing and holding on to strontium 90 - the chief radioactive product of fallout..... Visible fallout drifted down on six western states and two Canadian provinces - although no one officially acknowledged the fiasco and no public warnings were issued.... pg. 125
There is no more anonymous, mazelike, unsettling environment, especially to a dim, smallish human, than a field of infinitely identical rows of tall corn, each - including the diagonals - presenting a prospect of endless vegetative hostility. pg. 174