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This Boy's Life: A Memoir

This Boy's Life: A Memoir

4.4 47
by Tobias Wolff, Campbell Scott (Performed by)

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In this unforgettable memoir of boyhood in the 1950s, we meet the young Toby Wolff, by turns tough and vulnerable, crafty and bumbling, and ultimately winning. Separated by divorce from his father and brother, Toby and his mother are constantly on the move. Between themselves they develop an almost telepathic trust that sees them through their wanderings from


In this unforgettable memoir of boyhood in the 1950s, we meet the young Toby Wolff, by turns tough and vulnerable, crafty and bumbling, and ultimately winning. Separated by divorce from his father and brother, Toby and his mother are constantly on the move. Between themselves they develop an almost telepathic trust that sees them through their wanderings from Florida to a small town in Washington State. Fighting for identity and self-respect against the unrelenting hostility of a new stepfather, Toby's growing up is at once poignant and comical. His various schemes—running away to Alaska, forging cheeks, and stealing cars—lead eventually to an act of outrageous self-invention that releases him into a new world of possibility.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In PEN/Faulkner Award-winner Wolff's fourth book, he recounts his coming-of-age with customary skill and self-assurance. Seeking a better life in the Northwestern U.S. with his divorced mother, whose ``strange docility, almost paralysis, with men of the tyrant breed'' taught Wolff the virtue of rebellion, he considered himself ``in hiding,'' moved to invent a private, ``better'' version of himself in order to rise above his troubles. Primary among these were the adultsdrolly eccentric, sometimes dementedwho were bent on humiliating him. Since Wolff the writer never pities Wolff the boy, the author characterizes the crew of grown-up losers with damning objectivity, from the neurotic stepfather who painted his entire house (piano and Christmas tree included) white, to the Native American football star whose ultimate failure was as inexplicable as his athletic brilliance. Briskly and candidly reportedWolff's boyhood best friend ``bathed twice a day but always gave off an ammoniac hormonal smell, the smell of growth and anxiety''his youth yields a self-made man whose struggle to fit the pieces together is authentic and endearing. Literary Guild alternate. (Jan.)
Library Journal
Winner of the PEN/Faulkner award for The Barracks Thief , Wolff offers an engrossing and candid look into his childhood and adolescence in his first book of nonfiction. In unaffected prose he recreates scenes from his life that sparkle with the immediacy of narrative fiction. The result is an intriguingly guileless book, distinct from the usual reflective commentary of autobiography, that chronicles the random cruelty of a step father, the ambiguity of youthful friendships, and forgotten moments like watching The Mickey Mouse Club. Throughout this youthful account runs the solid thread of the author's respect and affection for his mother and a sense of wonder at the inexplicable twistings and turnings of the road to adulthood in modern America. Highly recommended. Linda Rome, Mentor, Ohio

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
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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 comer 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."

The sound of the hom grew distant, then faded in the wind that sighed in the trees all around us.

By the time we got there, quite a few people were standing along the cliff where the truck went over. It had smashed through the guardrails and fallen hundreds of feet through empty space to the river below, where it lay on its back among the boulders. It looked pitifully small. A stream of thick black smoke rose from the cab, feathering out in the wind. My mother asked whether anyone had gone to report the accident. Someone had. We stood with the others at the cliff's edge. Nobody spoke. My mother put her arm around my shoulder.

For the rest of the day she kept looking over at me, touching me, brushing back my hair. I saw that the time was right to make a play for souvenirs. I knew she bad no money for them, and I had tried not to ask, but now that her guard was down I couldn't help myself. When we pulled out of Grand junction I owned a beaded Indian belt, beaded moccasins, and a bronze horse with a removable, tooled-leather saddle.

It was 1955 and we were driving from Florida to Utah, to get away from a man my mother was afraid of and to get rich on uranium. We were going to change our luck.

We'd left Sarasota in the dead ofsummer, right after my tenth birthday, and beaded West under low flickering skies that turned black and exploded and cleared just long enough to leave the air gauzy with steam. We drove through Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, stopping to cool the engine in towns where people moved with arthritic slowness and spoke in thick, strangled tongues. Idlers with rotten teeth surrounded the car to press peanuts on the pretty Yankee lady and her little boy, arguing among themselves about shortcuts. Women looked up from their flower beds as we drove past, or watched us from their porches, sometimes impassively, sometimes giving us a nod and a flutter of their fans.

Every couple of hours the Nash Rambler boiled over. My mother kept digging into her little grubstake but no mechanic could fix it. All we could do was wait for it to cool, then drive on until it boiled over again. (My mother came to bate this machine so much that not long after we got to Utah she gave it away to a woman she met in a cafeteria.) At night we slept in boggy rooms where headlight beams crawled up and down the walls and mosquitoes sang in our ears, incessant as the tires whining on the highway outside. But none of this bothered me. I was caught up in my mother's freedom, her delight in her freedom, her dream of transformation.

Everything was going to change when we got out West. My mother had been a girl in Beverly Hills, and the life we saw ahead of us was conjured from her memories of California in the days before the Crash. Her father, Daddy as she called him, had been a navy officer and a paper millionaire. They'd lived in a big house with a turret. Just before Daddy lost all his money and all his shanty-Irish relatives' money and got himself transferred overseas, my mother was one of four girls chosen to ride on the Beverly Hills float in the Tournament of Roses. The float's theme was "The End of the Rainbow" and it won that year's prize by acclamation. She met Jackie Coogan. She had her picture taken with Harold Lloyd and Marion Davies, whose movie The Sailor Man was filmed on Daddy's ship. When Daddy was at sea she and her mother lived a dream life in which, for days at a time, they played the part of sisters.

And the cars my mother told me about as we waited for the Rambler to cool--I should have seen the cars! Daddy drove a Franklin touring car. She'd been courted by a boy who bad his own Chrysler convertible with a musical horn. And of course there was the Hernandez family, neighbors who'd moved up from Mexico after finding oil under their cactus ranch. The family was large. When they were expected to appear somewhere together they drove singly in a caravan of identical Pierce-Arrows.

Something like that was supposed to happen to us. People in Utah were getting up poor in the morning and going to bed rich at night. You didn't need to be a mining engineer or a mineralogist. All you needed was a Geiger counter. We were on our way to the uranium fields, where my mother would get a job and keep her eyes open. Once she learned the ropes she'd start prospecting for a claim of her own.

And when she found it she planned to do some serious compensating: for the years of hard work, first as a soda jerk and then as a novice secretary, that had gotten her no farther than flat broke and sometimes not that far. For the breakup of our family five years earlier. For the misery of her long affair with a violent man. She was going to make up for lost time, and I was going to help her.

Meet the Author

Tobias Wolff is the author of several story collections and two memoirs, including In Pharaoh’s Army, a finalist for the National Book Award, and the novel The Barracks Thief, which won the 1985 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

Brief Biography

Northern California
Date of Birth:
June 19, 1945
Place of Birth:
Birmingham, Alabama
B.A., Oxford University, 1972; M.A., Stanford University, 1975

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This Boy's Life 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 48 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Living in a dysfunctional family in the 1950s and 1960s isn¿t easy. Tobias Wolff¿s novel This Boy¿s Life is a moving tale of the frustrations of young Toby, constantly on the move with his mother, Rosemary, to avoid his violent father. They travel from Florida to Utah to Washington in hope of a better life; but what they really find is that they are no better off when they were back in Florida. Throughout the novel, Toby struggles in finding his own identity and pretends to be what other people want him to be. Because of this, Toby starts to steal and lie to find friends and fit in. He tries to make his mother happy by being the person she wants him to be. In doing so, he loses sight of his own identity. But his mother sees his problem as a lack of a fatherly figure and tries to appease him by marring a man named Dwight, who turns out to be an abusive drunk and a liar. Toby¿s strategies to avoid Dwight¿running away to Alaska, forging checks, stealing cars¿lead Toby to believe in the possibilities of escaping to a new world. This Boy¿s Life is truly a novel that will catch anyone¿s attention. Although the book can be read fairly easy, many people can relate to the struggles of adversity, which makes this novel so powerful. Wolff does a remarkable job of creating the frustrations and the cruelties of adolescence. The humor combined with the seriousness makes the reader have a new outlook on life, and how fortunate some of us are to have it. Overall, this book rates five stars and should be a part of everyone¿s book list.
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MullyJS More than 1 year ago
This book should really be read with his brother Tobias' book 'This Boy's Life' as a companion. Taken together they become all that more powerful and we see the true power of family and brotherhood. Both are amazing writers and both cause you to loose your place in your own world as you are drawn into theirs. If I could I would recommend these two books for college courses as well as high school.
A_Sloan More than 1 year ago
My favorite memoir of all time. Poignant and funny. Great stories that touch on your heart. I've read it three times.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A childhood filled with hardships that turned out for the better. Wolff completely amazed critics and readers of this intimate memoir that tells the stories of his early struggles in life. A life that wasn’t as happy or easy as it should be during juvenile times. The separation of his mother and father will be hard for him to reminisce on, but that did lead him into the person he is today. Mr. Wolff depicts relatable family issues that allow the audience to feel as if they could or have possibly gone through the same difficulties. The novel is a strong dose of reality that can hit hard to some people who own a past that they also can’t seem to forget. Yet Tobias and those people both know that everything happens for a reason since life always gets better. Life is supposed to be a challenge that tests a person’s capability to face them, but it will never win someone over unless they let themselves vulnerable to failure. A piece that will remind the reader to count their blessings and never let their hopes down, trudge forward to a brighter future. That’s what his mindset was throughout the entire book. Optimism kept his faith in a destination that will be joyful for his mother and himself, a place that will take years to get to (one dislike: the story was kind of long since it described unnecessary details of each year). But in the meantime, his chin was high and that was a moral that every reader should take from reading this memoir. Not only does has Wolff written an inspiring piece of his personal memories, but he has also published two other memoirs; In Pharaoh’s Army, a frontrunner for the National Book Award and The Barracks. Theif, winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction (pictured below).
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This book is amazingly fun to read. I could not put it down.
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Lynn Stoppelman More than 1 year ago
tough and difficult story told with obvious honesty