Des Moines in the 1950s and 60s as seen through “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid”

You might wonder, “what the heck does a book entitled The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid have to do with urban planning or cities and why is it being reviewed under Urbanography?” Good question. Actually, Bill Bryson’s hilarious childhood memoir has a quite a bit to do with planning and cities. In between the laughter there are a number of important planning-related topics addressed in his book.

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid describes Mr. Bryson’s youth growing up in Des Moines, Iowa in the 1950s and 60s. As a child of the 1960s, I can attest to the fact that many of his descriptions and memories are spot on. And sadly, a lot of them no longer exist. A perfect example is the Younker’s downtown department store tea room, which sounds like an exact copy of the L.S. Ayres Tea Room that used to adorn downtown Indianapolis.

Mr. Bryson discusses the advent of suburban shopping centers, the decline and death of many small farm towns, as well as a number of other similar planning-related topics.  If one were looking for one book that presents an accurate snapshot of life in 1950s/60s Midwest, this book would be my selection. Here is just one small snippet:

“Winfield [his grandparents’ hometown] is barely alive, all the businesses on Main Street-the dime store, the pool hall, the newspaper office, the banks, the grocery stores-long ago disappeared. There is nowhere to buy Nehi pop. You can’t purchase a single item of food in the town limits. My grandparents’ house is still there — at least it was the last time I passed — but its barn is gone as is its porch swing and the shade tree out back and the orchard and everything else that made it what it was. The best I can say is that I saw the last of something really special. It’s something I seem to say a lot these days.”

Yes, you will laugh out loud while reading this book, as young Bill Bryson endeavors to rid the world of morons. But I guarantee that he will also make you stop and think too…and likely bring a tear to your eye every now and again. I highly recommend The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid to anyone who wants to recall the sentimental memories of childhood.

This entry was posted in architecture, book reviews, cities, culture, diversity, education, history, land use, planning, transportation and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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