What can you say about a new Bill Bryson book? Whether writing about the English language in Mother Tongue or about popular science in the self-explanatory A Short History of Nearly Everything, or explaining the foibles of the English in his adopted land, his style is always witty and sometimes hilarious.
He is well up to form in his new book, an autobiography of his early years in Des Moines, Iowa. The preface states apologetically that ‘My kid days were pretty good ones on the whole. My parents … didn’t chain me in the cellar. They didn’t call me “It”. I was born a boy and allowed to stay that way. My mother … sent me to school once in Capri pants, but otherwise there was little trauma in my upbringing.’ This is reassuring after the recent slew of books by people accusing their helpfully dead parents and other close relatives of incestuous rape, alcoholism and mental and physical torture, all of which now come under the rather prissy term of ‘abuse’.
So, no abuse, but this recital of childhood takes place in 1950s America; a world so normal as to seem almost surreal today. Bryson was lucky in a number of ways: among them that he was born in the most prosperous country in the world, to intelligent and engagingly eccentric