Read Like a Writer, Part 4: This Boy’s Life – First Impressions 11

FIRST IMPRESSIONS *This Boy’s Life, by Tobias Wolff

Cover Image - This Boy's LifeThis Boy’s Life, published in 2007, is already a classic among coming-of-age memoirs. It begins with Toby, age fourteen, and his mother as they run West to hide from an abusive relationship and make their fortune prospecting for uranium. “She was going to make up for lost time, and I was going to help her.” (p. 6)

When the uranium fields turn out to be more rumor than fact, and his mother’s abusive boyfriend shows up, they go on the run again, this time to Seattle. There, Toby falls in with the wrong group of boys. Enter the stepfather, Dwight, a man of thin and fragile bravado. The kind of man who swerves to hit animals on the road and goes into a pouting rage any time his authority is questioned. Dwight makes a cruel mission of “correcting” all he thinks is wrong with young Toby. This is the situation in which Toby finds himself as he navigates high school in Concrete, a small town east of Burlington.


Let’s start with the first sentence:

Wolff’s memoir begins, “ Our car boiled over again just after my mother and I crossed the Continental Divide.”

As a writer, I like to “collect” first lines. This one does double duty: it grabs my attention immediately, while also managing to portray the essence of what the memoir is about — all in one sentence. We have the car boiling over “again,” which communicates desperation and poverty. We know Wolff is alone with his mother. And we know they are traveling a distance. At this point, we don’t know what they are running to or from, but we want to find out.

Overall, what I am most impressed with as I read this memoir, is Wolff’s ability to summarize characters and places, capturing their essence in just a few words. The writing is sparse, honest, and poignant, all at once.

Let me show you what I mean with just a few examples from the first chapters —

A one-sentence characterization of his mother and his relationship with her that says it all:

“For the rest of the day she kept looking over at me, touching me, brushing back my hair.” (p. 4).

A picture of Sister James, when Toby was in catechism class:

“She was a woman of passion. Her square jaw trembled when something moved her, and as she talked her eyes grew brilliant behind her winking rimless glasses. She could not sit still. Instead she paced between our desks, her habit rustling against us. She had no timidity or coyness. Even about sex she spoke graphically and with gusto. Sometimes she would forget where she was and start whistling.” (pp. 9-10). 

An effective characterization of place and culture:

“We drove through Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, stopping to cool the engine in towns where people moved with arthritic slowness and spoke in thick, strangled tongues. Idlers with rotten teeth surrounded the car to press peanuts on the pretty Yankee lady and her little boy, arguing among themselves about shortcuts.” (p. 4)

A one-sentence description of a boarding house room he and his mother lived in:

It was the kind of room that B-movie detectives wake up in, bound and gagged, after they’ve been slipped a Mickey. (pp. 37-38). 

An effective way to sum up a man’s character using physical description:

Dwight was a short man with curly brown hair and sad, restless brown eyes. He smelled of gasoline. His legs were small for his thick-chested body, but what they lacked in length they made up for in spring; he had an abrupt, surprising way of springing to his feet. (p. 63).

Communicating the attitude of the Vice-Principal using indirect dialogue:

He said that he was fed up with the delinquent behavior of a few rotten apples. They had names. Well, he wanted those names, and he was going to get them if he had to keep every single one of us here all night long. (p. 77).

Wolff also manages to portray himself as a fully fleshed-out character on the page — which I consider one of the most difficult accomplishments of a memoir writer. And he does so unsympathetically, without sugarcoating his own faults.

Consider the following excerpt, in which he portrays himself playing with his rifle:

“I drew a bead on whoever walked by— women pushing strollers, children, garbage collectors laughing and calling to each other, anyone— and as they passed under my window I sometimes had to bite my lip to keep from laughing in the ecstasy of my power over them, and at their absurd and innocent belief that they were safe.” (p. 25).

Portraying himself and his friends:

We became self-important, cocksure, insane in our arrogance. We broke windows. We broke streetlights. We opened the doors of cars parked on hills and released the emergency brakes so they smashed into the cars below. (p. 61).


Summary of First Impressions

We can learn a lot by studying Wolff’s methods of description and characterization — the way he encapsulates how people move through the world, their socio-economic status, world views, and positive and negative attributes with a few carefully chosen words. How he dips into other points of view using indirect dialogue. How he creates plot from life.

And we will do just that. In my next post in this series, we’ll closely examine Wolff’s word choices and how these affect pace, tone, and overall voice. I hope you will join me. If you haven’t started yet, This Boy’s Life is *available on Amazon in print, Kindle, and audiobook formats.

Please share: What are your first impressions of the writing of Tobias Wolff and This Boy’s Life?

My gift to you . . .

To help you start a book journal of your own, I’ve created a Book Journal template that I’d like to share with you. If you prefer to journal by hand, download the PDF version, print, and place in a binder. If you like to journal using your computer and you use Microsoft Word, download the Word version so you can make your entry directly onto the page.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

11 thoughts on “Read Like a Writer, Part 4: This Boy’s Life – First Impressions

  • Diane Warner

    Rounding the corner at age 83, I see nothing in front of me. Fifty or more journals are full from the habit of writing and maybe I could bring forth a story, if I was motivated to unpack the plastic storage boxes stacked in a closet and reread the words. Memories, dialogues, quotes from others and spontaneous stories are lying together unseen waiting to be valued before I die. I harbor thoughts of disposing of what remains before my children have to decide to read or throw out the handcrafted left overs. I dream of orchestrating a death scene where I take the end of life pill in front of family and friends as an example of personal freedom and choice. All i need is a terminal diagnosis and the signatures of a medical doctor and a psychiatrist.

    • Amber Lea Starfire Post author

      Diane, thank you for sharing your thoughts. I advise you to keep your journals and letters, etc., and not destroy them – I can tell you from personal experience that your writing may be a rich legacy for your children. My memoir, Not the Mother I Remember, was born from my mother’s letters and journals, and I am deeply grateful to have them. Let your children decide.

    • Kathi Ostrom Gowsell

      Hi Diane,
      I haven’t stopped thinking about you since I read your post a few days ago. I’ve been wondering whether one of your children might like to sit with you to help you go through your journals. You could read them together. I picture you in rich conversation and connection over them. Your children might enjoy the opportunity to ask you some of the many questions they might have about you – your lessons, your values, your life experiences – that they haven’t even thought of yet.

  • Kathi Ostrom Gowsell

    Hi Amber Lea,
    I like that you collect first lines. What a great idea!

    With many books it takes me a good 100 pages to become fully engaged but I realized after reading your first impressions that I was immediately drawn into this book by Wolff’s first sentence.

    One of the reasons I felt compelled to keep reading was Toby/Jack’s fascination with weapons – joining the archery club, getting to use rifles to shoot at tin cans. It created tension for me and I wondered how badly this story would end.

    I love good characters and hIs characterization is so well done. I like these lines he uses to describe his mother’s abusive boyfriend Roy. “Roy was handsome in the conventional way that appeals to boys. He had a tattoo. He’d been to war and kept a kind of silence about it that was full of heroic implication. He was graceful in his movements. He could fix a Jeep if he had to, though he preferred to drive halfway across Utah to a mechanic he’d heard about from some loudmouth in a bar.” I can imagine exactly who this guy is.

    Thank you for the book journal. I’ll keep it handy for our next book.

  • Mick

    Hi Amber,

    Where is the “[your] next post in this series, we’ll closely examine Wolff’s word choices and how these affect pace, tone, and overall voice.?”

    I’d love to read more.

    All the best,


      • Mick Guinn

        Ah! Found ’em! Thanks! I can’t remember exactly why it didn’t come up in my initial search, but all 3 are interesting takes on Wolff. Have you ever tackled “The Liars’ Club” in the same way?

      • Mick

        Oh, and I forgot to add, you might want to edit your post above as Toby is not “fourteen” a the start of the book. He’s 10-years-old when we meet them both on the side of the road.