I was a Star Scout and a patrol leader during my freshman year of high school when I first read This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff, a memoir of the author’s delinquent adolescence, up in the Cascade Mountains, outside the town of Concrete, Washington.
It is a story of reinvention as Tobias and his mother crisscross America—from Florida to Utah, up north to Seattle and finally back east again—always fleeing failed homes and failed families, one after another. Out west, Tobias trades his given name in favor of Jack, fashioning himself a naïve imitation of his favorite writer Jack London.
Jack is first-class screw up. A slacker. A vandal. A thief. A liar. An accomplice and never a leader. Jack’s worst flaws, however, are surpassed by his abusive stepfather Dwight, who aspires to teach his stepson the straight and moral way but succeeds at nothing more than torment and betrayal.
This Boy’s Life is also a story of survival. Jack ultimately escapes Dwight with acceptance to a prestigious preparatory school in Pennsylvania—a distinction that Jack could only win by forging his high school transcripts.
It’s not the honesty expected of a Boy Scout, and Jack is a Boy Scout too. By the story’s conclusion, it’s left uncertain whether or not Jack makes the rank of Eagle Scout, but the scouting episodes reveal his longing to become someone better than he is, a potential that can only be realized somewhere beyond the city limits of Concrete, Washington.
“But I liked being a Scout. I was stirred by the elevated diction in which we swore our fealty to the chaste chivalric fantasies of Lord Baden-Powell. My uniform, baggy and barren thought it was, made me feel like a soldier…Dwight gave me Skipper’s old Scout manual, Handbook for Boys…But what I liked best about the Handbook was its voice, the bluff hail-fellow language by which it tried to make being a good boy seem adventurous, even romantic. The Scout spirit was traced to King Arthur’s Round Table, and from there to the explorers and pioneers and warriors whose conquests had been achieved through fair play and clean living…I yielded easily to this comradely tone, forgetting while I did so that I was not the boy it supposed I was.”
from This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff.