3 out of 4 stars
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When I think of an autobiography, I typically think of a book about someone's life who went through something so spectacular that everyone would want to read about it. Someone survived against impossible odds in a war? Sounds amazing! Somebody raised 35 kids all alone? That sounds awful, tell me more! Someone dedicated their life to creating the world's biggest LEGO structure? Sure, that could be awesome! Lately, however, I'm finding more and more autobiographies about ordinary people, people who have lived through some crazy moments (who hasn't?) but for the most part live lives similar to the rest of us. Focusing on someone who didn't singlehandedly kill 30,000 enemy soldiers with their bare hands is far more relatable, even if many of these books come across as a bit mundane.
Enter Our Teenage Years: Growing up in a small town in the 80's by T. J. Wray. Wray's book takes a unique approach - rather than focus on his entire life thus far (he's currently in his late 40s) or on a handful of events that were especially astonishing, he tackles dozens of wild things that happened to him in his youth. I'm a mere 13 years younger than Wray myself, but his experience growing up even that short amount of time prior to me, and in a small town vs my youth in Chicago, made for a really interesting book!
Our Teenage Years starts off with an introduction of Wray's early years leading up to his parents divorcing one another, his father moving Wray and his sister around a ludicrous number of times and then Wray moving in with his mother (and "idiot" stepfather). From there, chapters are broken up mostly into various types of stories rather than chronological order. These stories range from Wray's first job as a paperboy and feeling like a rich man for making a little over $100 a month; to getting his first motorcycle; his best friend and their crazy adventures; a foray into shoplifting; accidentally burning his house down; getting left behind while on the way to a Christian rock concert and then having to leave early because everyone else was smoking pot; and just hanging out doing whatever kids do in a small town. The multiple sections of each chapter are often only a few pages each, so they don't take forever to get to the good stuff, but throughout it all Wray builds a narrative of a kid that any of us would be lucky to have as our own.
Wray is one of those authors that writes like he's talking to a loved one, particularly his children. He's not scared to admit the crazy things he and his friends did, nor is he scared to admit the mistakes he made. Instead, he uses these hard-earned lessons from his own life to teach lessons to others. In addition to merely showing the dangers of, say, prodding and throwing rocks at what looks like a giant tire but is actually an alligator's tail, he does it all the best way possible - through being a good example.
Despite having a really rough childhood, Wray dove into responsibility even in his early teens. He learned the value of a dollar, he worked his butt off and he was darn proud of it! It's been a long time since I heard stories of people who were responsible and hardworking merely because it was the right thing to do, and his examples are exemplary. That isn't to say he didn't do some really dumb stuff, of course. He was a teenager after all, so he may have seriously hurt himself more times than I can count and survived more than some superheroes, but every one of these stories is entertaining and a joy to read.
This was one of those books where I'd look at how much I'd read and be blown away that I'd covered a couple dozen pages. I was so drawn in, and I could easily have read another 100 pages of Wray's stories, but at the same time I didn't feel for a second that the book was too short. In fact, at the end of the book he has a hint of a story from the 90s, and he (probably jokingly) says that "the 90s is a whole other book". I really do hope he intends to write that book, because I'd devour it just as happily as I blew through this one! My rating of Our Teenage Years: Growing up in a small town in the 80's by T. J. Wray is 3 out of 4 stars, solely because I found just over a dozen errors. The errors are the only negative I have about the book at all, and as exceptional as the rest of the book is it pains me terribly to take that point off, but I literally have no choice. It's so great, it makes me wish I had a book like it written by every person in my family, and especially from the family that has passed away.
Our Teenage Years: Growing up in a small town in the 80's
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