This Boy's Life

Wolff, Tobias (1989). New York: Grove Press, ISBN-10: 0821-3668-8/ ISBN-13: 978-0-8021-3668-8

In 1950's America, Tobias Wolff travels around with his damaged and unrealistic mother looking for a get-rich-quick path into the good life. She meets Dwight; they marry and settle in the Washington town of Concrete, a beautiful but harsh area north of Seattle. There Dwight reveals himself to be a demented step-dad, abusive and controlling. Tobias, who prefers to be called Jack ,after Jack London, gets into trouble, makes the wrong friends, and works to survive life with his step-dad. Fortunately, Wolff shares with us a portrait of himself as a young man with an indestructibly inflated ego—even though his every scheme fails miserably and his school career is a disaster, Jack retains the image of himself as a talented, special boy. Jack looks for help from his Princeton senior brother, and from his absent East-coast father, married to a wealthy woman, but nothing permanent is forthcoming. Finally, Jack lies and forges his way into Hill, a prestigious East coast prep school, but does he have the skills to stay there, and if not, where can he go?

Reader’s Annotation
Tobias Wolff’s memoir of his years in the harsh Pacific Northwest under the thumb of his cruel stepfather Dwight--the story of his survival and eventual escape is told in powerful prose with humor and honesty.

This is a powerful book—it is three-dimensional in every way. Each person is presented in the round. Jack is no paragon--Wolff may even be a little hard on himself. The irresponsible mother especially is portrayed with sympathy and understanding, but even Dwight is not a caricatured villain—his behavior has context, and he has redeeming moments. The landscape of the town of Concrete and 1950’s America is so textured that we feel we have been there, experiencing the rough ground against a cold face, a mouthful of blood, the scratchy upholstery of a hot seat in a big car. Kids seem to love to read books about children who are victims, such as A Child Called It—This Boy’s Life takes such a book to the level of literature, while preserving that narrative form’s appeal. Even as he shows us all his faults, we sympathize always with Jack and long for his escape.

About the author
Tobias Wolff has a fantastical biography. His father was a legendary con artist who was portrayed in a book by Wolff’s brother, UC Professor Geoffrey Wolff, The Duke of Deception. Tobias Wolff really did concoct a falsified application and win admission to Hill, and really was expelled for lack of academic skills. He finished his education after serving in the military, and is now a professor at Stanford.

Curriculum Ties

Booktalking Ideas
The Wolff family: Professional Liars!
From Concrete (company town) to Hill (elite prep school)
Does whatever doesn’t kill you really make you stronger? (Jack’s childhood/eventual success)

Reading Level/Interest Age

Challenge Issues
Profanity; sexual situations

Be knowledgeable about the book and prepared to discuss it calmly. Provide complaint form per board policy;
Gather student responses; Share National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction; New York Times Notable Book of the Year; Reviews excerpted at Amazon:

Why Included?
Considering as freshman English curriculum next year; for Independent Reading, I was looking for something a step up for students from A Child Called It.

Selection Tools
Outstanding Books For The College Bound: Biography (ALA/YALSA)

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