A childhood is a unique thing. We all have one, and I like to think of them as our life challenge. We almost invariably experience traumatic events, then have the challenge of dealing with the fallout the rest of our lives, or until we gracefully recover. The childhood of Tobias Wolff was no different, yet it was unique in its own way. His memoir is best known for honesty to the extreme.
Title: This Boy’s Life
Author: Tobias Wolff
Publisher: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1989.
Location: Utah, Washington, California, Washington D.C.
POV: First person memoir
My Source: Audiobook
The Premise of This Boy’s Life
A young boy, abandoned by his father, survives childhood and teen years with his mother who has a habit of being involved in dysfunctional relationships.
Characters in This Boy’s Life
Tobias Wolff, aka. Jack – the author, as a child and teenager.
Rosemary – his mother.
Roy – his mother’s crazy boyfriend she wants to escape from.
Dwight – his mother’s crazy husband.
Skipper – Dwight’s son.
Norma – Dwight’s teenage daughter.
Pearl – Dwight’s younger daughter.
A few of Tobias’ friends.
Arthur Gayle – Tobias’ best friend during teenage years.
Champion – a most unfortunate dog.
Paperback Version of This Boy’s Life, by Tobias Wolff
This book cover image links to a paperback version of This Boy’s Life. I listened to the audiobook, purchased at Audible.com. I enjoyed the audiobook… the reader was perfect for the memoir.
The book starts with Tobias and his mother traveling to Utah where they think riches await. She’s escaping from Roy, a crazy boyfriend from Florida. Unfortunately he’ll catch up with her and continue his abusive ways in Utah. She didn’t want him in Florida and the change of scenery doesn’t help, so eventually she’ll move on, this time escaping him completely.
I could identify with this woman, unfortunately. I’ve managed to have only dysfunctional so-called romantic relationships myself, so I saw her as being a sympathetic character. Tobias’ father, her first husband, was alcoholic. She left her oldest son with him and had only Tobias with her on her cross-country journey which took them from Connecticut to Florida, to Utah and finally Washington state.
Themes of This Boy’s Life
Kids misbehave, but so do parents.
We can live through almost anything, if we think we have to.
Some people are ridiculously manipulative, selfish and cruel.
This Boy’s Life – movie trailer
First paragraph of This Boy’s Life
Our car boiled over again just after my mother and I crossed the Continental Divide. While we were waiting for it to cool we heard, from somewhere above us, the bawling of an airhorn. The sound got louder and then a big truck came around the corner and shot past us into the next curve, its trailer shimmying wildly. We stared after it. “Oh, Toby,” my mother said, “he’s lost his brakes.”
Tobias Wolff’s writing style is easily readable, and requires no mental strain. The story kept my interest though at times I was a bit put out with his antics. The memoir is very honest and leaves no question as to his childhood faults. He had plenty and wasn’t afraid to share them. You have to admire someone willing to tell the truth about things he was unwilling to be truthful about during teen years. This is a great story told in plain language.
My experience of reading This Boy’s Life
I tried several times to listen to this audiobook. I originally bought it in the spring of 2015, but didn’t listen to it completely until the summer of 2017. The reason I couldn’t get past chapter one, the first two times I tried to listen, was because he tells about seeing a truck lose its brakes, and later seeing it wrecked at the bottom of a cliff. Since I know a truck driver I care about, I really wasn’t loving that word picture. Perhaps it was the first trauma in a series of traumas for Tobias Wolff, sort of characterizing much of his childhood. Maybe he wanted to get a reader’s attention by telling them about something unforgettable and awful. It was really off-putting for me, but the trucking incident turned out to be unimportant to the overall plot.
Finally in September, 2017 I needed an audiobook to listen to. This time I got past chapter one and rather quickly listened to the rest of the memoir. It was not in the least bit boring – just sad, in so many ways. I loved that he lived just west of where I now live… in the mountains of Washington state. I looked for the town he called “Chinook” but these days that name belongs to a town south of Seattle. I’m sure that’s not the place he referred to in the memoir. I’ll write more about this below, in the section called “Location Notes.”
My opinion of this Tobias Wolff memoir
I wish I could write a memoir as open and honest as this one. Tobias Wolff was able to write about his own misdeeds, and I don’t expect that I’ll ever be able to do the same. He did a lot of things I would never have done, but in a way, he reminded me of things I’ve known other young boys to do… such as throwing things at people off the tops of buildings, or lying, stealing, shooting, and fighting. Definitely not my style of misbehavior.
I’ve wanted to write a memoir for a few years now so I take memoir reading very seriously, and really enjoyed this one. It was well written and edited. Though Tobias never called his step-father a narcissist, it was clear with all the verbal abuse and mistreatment he perpetrated, he had a severe behavior disorder. His mother was so naïve to get together with that man. Tobias endured treatment no child should have to go through.
About the Author
Tobias Wolff was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1945. After surviving his difficult childhood he went on to serve in the Vietnam War, and studied at Hertford College, Oxford, and Stanford University. At Stanford he received a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Creative Writing. From 1980 to 1997 he taught at Syracuse University. Since 1997 he’s been a professor at Stanford University, in the English department. He has published three novels, two memoirs, and numerous short stories.
Photo by Mark Coggins used by permission – CC BY 2.0
Spark Notes for This Boy’s Life – extensive information with plenty of spoilers.
The Man Who Told Lies – interesting article about Tobias Wolff and his family.
More books by Tobias Wolff
Places mentioned in This Boy’s Life include Salt Lake City, Utah, and Seattle, Washington. For a while he lived further north in Washington. Here’s a map.
I looked for the Washington locations on a map because I’m intrigued by the area, which isn’t far from where I live in Northern Idaho. Young Tobias lived in a remote mountain town which he called Chinook in the memoir, and which Wikipedia identifies as Newhalem. He mentioned Marblemount in the memoir. That’s where his step-father liked to stop for drinks on the way home, while leaving the children sitting alone in the car for long stretches of time. Afterwards he would drive home while intoxicated, on a dangerous mountain road. Was Dwight a step-father from hell, or merely a misguided, flawed, human, man? The reader is left to decide.
Image credits… the book covers are from Amazon. Mark Coggins photographed Tobias Wolff.