Book Summary: This Boy’s Life


This Boy’s Life

by Tobias Wolfe
Grove Press (March 2000)

Tucker’s Rating: 8.5 / 10

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What’s it about?: The childhood memoir of Tobias Wolfe, a respected author, that covers his childhood growing up in Seattle, notably his mothers relationship with his stepfather. [Interesting note: Tobias is the brother of Geoffrey Wolfe, who wrote The Duke of Deception, which is about Tobias’s father. I would read both as a pair.]

Tucker’s Opinion: This book is legendary for a reason: It’s awesome. If you grew up in a broken home, especially if you were raised by a mom who was sweet and caring but not altogether emotionally stable, this book will resonate deeply with you. The book also does something that so few painful childhood memoirs do: it gets out of the way of the events and emotions. It spends very little time trying to rationalize or explain or justify or understand. It mostly just describes what happened, and how it made him feel, and by doing that–by stripping away all the characterization–it allows the events to speak for themselves. Very powerful and highly recommended.

Notable Quotes (as marked by Tucker):

But over time the innocence I laughed at began to irritate me.  It was a peculiar kind of irritation.  I saw it years later in men I served with, and felt it myself, when unarmed Vietnamese civilians talked back to us while we were herding them around.  Power can be enjoyed only when it is recognized and feared.  Fearlessness in those without power is maddening to those who have it.

I would promise.  And then I would get in the car with Dwight and he would drive me back to the mountains, smoking, brooding, looking over at me to see if he could catch some expression on my face that would give me away and explain why my mother kept putting off her decision.  When he reached Marblemount he would stop at the tavern and drink for a couple of hours, then take me through the turns above the river and tell me some more things that were wrong with me.


Dwight’s bill of particulars contained some truth.  But it went on and on.  It never ended, and before long it lost its power to hurt me.  I experienced it as more bad weather to get through, not biting, just close and dim and heavy.

All of Dwight’s complaints against me had the aim of giving me a definition of myself.  They succeeded, but not in the way he wished.  I defined myself by opposition to him.  In the past I had been ready, even when innocent, to believe any evil thing of myself.  Now that I had grounds for guilt I could no longer feel it.

All I had to go was go to class, and sometimes even that seemed too much.  I had fallen in love with some notorious older boys from Concrete who took me on as a curiosity when they discovered that I’d never been drink and still had my cherry.  I was grateful for their interest.  I wanted distinction, and the respectable forms of it seemed to be eluding me.  If I couldn’t have it as a citizen I would have it as an outlaw.

Packard said there were over three thousand private schools in America.  Only a very few satisfied his standard of exclusivity.  He specified them in a brief list almost exactly the same as Geoffrey’s.  I understood, pondering these names in the library of Concrete High, that the most brilliant life they promised depended on laving most people out, to loud walls and bad tailors.  I did not want to be left out.  Now that I had felt the possibility of this life, any other life would be an oppression.

I wrote off for application forms.  The schools responded quickly, with cover letters in whose stiff courtesy I managed to hear panting enthusiasm.  I did get a friendly note from John Boyden, the headmaster of Deerfield and the son of the man who had thrown my father out.  He said that the school was already swamped with applications that year, and recommended that I apply to some other schools. His list was familiar.  In a handwritten postscript he added that he remembered my father, and wished me all the best.  I fixed on this cordial nod as a signal of favor.

The doctor gave me some tablets when I left the hospital, but they had no effect.  I was hurting in two ways now, from my finger and from narcotic withdrawal.  Though it must have been a mild episode of withdrawal it did not seem mild to me, especially since I didn’t know what it was, or that it would come to an end.  Knowing that everything comes to an end is a gift of experience, a consolation gift for knowing that we ourselves are coming to an end.  Before we get it we live in a continuous present, and imagine the future as more of that present.  Happiness is endless happiness, innocent of its own sure passing.  Pain is endless pain.

On the way home Chuck scared me by weaving all over the road and giving sermons about damnation.  He meant these sermons to be parodies of his father’s, but they were all his own.  Mr. Bolger did not preach like this.  Chuck could catch his father’s inflections and rhythms, but not his music.  What came out instead was his own fear of being condemned.

I didn’t need to see the tears in Mr. Welch’s eyes to know that I had brought shame on myself.  I knew it when we first drove into the farmyard and I saw the place in the light of day.  Everything I saw thereafter forced the knowledge in deeper.  These people weren’t making it.  They were near the edge, and I had nudged them that much farther along.  Not much, but enough to take away some of their margin.  Returning the gas didn’t change that.  The real harm was in their knowing that someone could come upon them in this state, and pause to do them injury.  It had to make them feel small and alone, knowing this — that was the harm we had done.  I understood some of this and felt the rest.

It takes a childish or corrupt imagination to make symbols of other people.  I didn’t know the Welches.  I had no right to see them this way.  I had no right to feel fear or pity or disgust, no right to feel anything but sorry for what I had done.  I did feel these things, though.  A kind of panic came over me.  I couldn’t take a good breath.  All I wanted was to get away.

I had no words for any of this, or for my understanding that to accept Father Karl’s hope of redemption I would have to give up my own.  He believed in God, and I believed in the world.

The girl was in my class at Concrete High — one of a pack of hysterically miserable girls who ran around in tight clothes, plastered their faces with makeup, chainsmoked and talked in class and did their best to catch the attention of boys who would be sure to use them badly.

No one spoke.  The sounds of steel on china, of chewing and swallowing, of chairs creaking, all seemed amplified and grotesque.  Chuck’s sister bolted their food and got out of there.

When we are green, still half-created, we believe that our dreams are rights, that the world is disposed to act in our best interests, and that falling and dying are for quitters.  We live on the innocent and monstrous assurance that we alone, of all the people ever born, have a special arrangement whereby we will be allowed to stay green forever.