The first, Bill Bryson’s memoir “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid” (Broadway Books, 2006), delivers a hilarious look at American life through juvenile eyes in the 1950s. The second, Dan Erickson’s fact-based novel “A Train Called Forgiveness” (Amazon, 2012), recounts a young man’s struggle with a mind messed up from six years of torment and abuse as a teenager in a religious-based cult in the 1970s.
Don’t know which rock I’d been under to miss Bryson’s work until now. If you have an oversized butt, reading this could very easily laugh off a size or two.
Bryson writes of a childhood where disagreeable persons are effectively zapped into inconsequence with an imaginary ray. Along the way, he enjoys the freedom of just being a kid during a time portrayed as one of the happiest and best in American history. He puts a face on Des Moines, Iowa, that looks very much like Anywhere, USA, with multiple story lines and images that should be familiar to anyone who lived during the Eisenhower administration. Sorta reminded me of “A Christmas Story” without the holiday.
Family dysfunction gets shrugged off as Bryson finds humor in the quirks of his parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles and childhood friends. Television, consumerism, anti-communism and fear of atomic destruction are all addressed from past and present views. Thought I knew all about the 1950s from my own experiences, but Bryson showed just how much I didn’t know. Or had forgotten.
Dan Erickson takes a decidedly more serious look at coping through the mind of Andy Burden, a boy delivered into a Washington state religious-based cult by his parents and deeply scarred by the ordeal. Forced to work long hours on a communal farm and punished by a self-proclaimed Moses for not doing enough, he grows to resent what he considers a gross denial of adolescence.
I was drawn to this book by reports that it is a fictionalized account of the author’s real-life experiences in a cult in my hometown while I was away at college and later working in Alaska. The story unfolds through the transcribed notebooks of Burden, a schizophrenic songwriter and convenience store cashier tormented by voices from his cult days. The voices remind him of his unworthiness, threaten to come after him and promise punishment for his disloyalty.
Fortunately, Burden also hears a single comforting voice in his head for at least a morsel of courage and self-assurance, enough to stop self-medicating with drugs and alcohol and deal with his suppressed feelings in musical and lyrical composition. That takes him to Nashville on a pathway of discovery and forgiveness aided by insights gleaned from a cast of fellow dysfunctionals and social outcasts who help and befriend him.
Easy to say it’s all about forgiveness. Harder to find and apply it.
Despite his heavier theme, Erickson’s book, the first in a cult trilogy, is a quick read that, much like Bryson’s, you won’t want to put down until it’s finished.
For the record, a voice in my head made me write this review.