6 December, 2022

Litstack Recs | This Boy’s Life & Wintering

This Boy’s Life: A Memoir, by Tobias Wolff 

First published in 1989, Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life has since become a classic of the contemporary memoir, the kind of book you can finish, like I did, in nearly one sitting. Wolff, the author of numerous works of fiction, including short stories, novels, and a second memoir, has said This Boy’s Life began as notes written to himself about his boyhood—stories he thought he might pass along to his children. But as the material kept amassing, it was soon clear there was a larger story to be told.

Across the Continental Divide

The book covers Wolff’s peripatetic and often tumultuous boyhood, from the age of ten to high school, after his mother flees her marriage from his father (and leaves behind his elder brother Geoffrey), taking her youngest with her. Mother and son drive west in a beat-up car, and their destination is Utah where a supposed uranium boom is underway. Though by the time they arrive, the boom is over. And here is where, to borrow the title of Wolff’s latest collection, our story begins:

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.”

Flawed Characters, Strong Voice, Lyric Clarity

Rosemary, Toby’s mother is both beautiful and tragically uncertain, never sure whether she’s chosen the right job, moved to the right town, or married the right man. A good deal of the story’s tension is founded on Rosemary’s unfortunate choices, but she is clearly devoted to her son, as best she can be, and a thoroughly sympathetic character all the same. She is both beautiful and flawed, with a certain flinty conviction that at crucial points moves mother and son to the next locale.

Tobias Wolff

The voice of Wolff’s narrator is as much the center of the book as the story of Toby and Rosemary‘s survival. Wolff’s style has been described as lyric clarity, and the voice here carefully and honestly discerns the damaged men, schoolmates, and places and objects that occupy Toby’s life, and no less honest when it comes to the author himself. Here, we see Rosemary, despondent after she returns from her honeymoon with her new husband Dwight:

“I had never seen my mother give up. I hadn’t even known the possibility existed, but now I knew, and it gave me pause. It made me feel for a little while the truth that everything good in my life could be lost, that it was all drawn day by day from someone else’s store of hope and will.”

The accuracy with which Wolff portrays this world is applied as much to the character of Toby as it is to the people and things in it. Read This Boy’s Life for that winning and insightful voice, and for the thrill of seeing how one boy managed to self-invent his way out of a life that didn’t offer him many favors.

—Lauren Alwan


  • TS Tate

    Tee received a Master of Arts in English in 2008 from Southeastern Louisiana University. She has studied under Edgar nominee Tim Gautreaux, Booksense Pick novelist Bev Marshall and Clarion West graduate and World Fantasy nominee, Cat Rambo. She has more than ten years of documentation and editing experience and is currently the Editor-in-Chief at LitStack.com.   She has spent the past nine years in the corporate environment as a Technical Editor and has previously edited for Christine Rose, Phoebe North, Heather McCorkle, Laura Pauling, Anne Riley, Christine Fonseca and UF writer Carolyn Crane. With Heather McCorkle, Tee co-founded the #WritersRoad chat on Twitter.  In addition, she is working on several creative projects, including her second novel and various short stories. Her flash fiction, "Street Noises," was included in the Pill Hill Press anthology "Daily Frights 2012: 366 Days of Dark Flash Fiction (Leap Year Edition)" and her short "Til Hunt Be Done," was included in the Winter Wonders anthology from Compass Press.  A diehard New Orleans Saints fan, Tee lives with her family in Southeast Louisiana.