Tobias Wolff captures the despair and joys of growing up in the 1950’s and 1960’s with a single parent in his memoir This Boy’s Life. He and his mother, Rosemary, move across the country from Florida to Utah to escape an abusive boyfriend and then flee again to Seattle when the boyfriend catches up to them. After a short period living in a ramshackle house shared with other single women, Rosemary marries Dwight, and they move north of Seattle to the small town of Concrete, Washington.
Tobias’ formative years take place in Concrete and are overshadowed by the moody and unpredictable new step-father. Dwight thrives on cruelty and Tobias soon becomes a frequent target. Whether through psychological abuse or the occasional slap to the face, Dwight exerts his power over the young Tobias. Rosemary tries to protect her son but is ineffective in diverting all of Dwight’s vitriol.
Tobias longs to escape Dwight’s household and his escapades along these lines provide some of the more uncomfortable and humorous scenes from the book. Some of the memorable attempts to get away include writing a bad check to raise funds and faking his application materials to gain entrance into a boarding school.
Although Tobias’ childhood was often unpleasant it is never uninteresting. The scenes from his life give snapshots of a dysfunctional family and the enduring quest for survival and selfhood.
Check out This Boy’s Life in the VBPL catalog. Try out Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle for another memoir of crazy family life.