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Tobias Wolff’s style in his memoir, This Boy’s Life, is very different from many other memoirs, and personal narratives. He is a master of manipulating voice, and through his use of voice, he was able to make his story more real, and more true.
This Boy’s Life follows a young Wolff as he progresses from childhood to late adolescence, and the sorts of troubles he gets into along the way. Everyone’s read coming of age stories before, but Wolff’s use of voice sets his story apart from the many others. He provides for the reader an unfiltered look into his mind at the time. For example, when he’s talking about his ammunition box full of stolen cash, he’s talking about what he will do with all the money. He speaks of this outrageous fantasy in which he lives in a cabin with “pelt-covered walls…[and] tame wolves dozing before the fire” (155). He provides the reader a glimpse into his childlike mind, and his fantasies. There are many examples of images like this in the book, and they help remind the reader that Wolff is only a child. It adds a quality of relatability to the book, as well. Everyone has these sorts of thoughts as a child; it’s the product of having an unfiltered imagination, untouched by the worries of adult responsibility. This immerses the reader in the book — it allows them to reflect on their own childhood while reading, making it easier to see the book as it was written: from a child’s perspective.
When we’re children, we often bounce around from hobby to hobby, interest to interest, rarely looking back at our past selves, always looking towards the future. The book moves constantly in a forward direction, providing short, almost vignette-like passages about his changing interests, and how those interests influence his decisions. This structure, and the constant shifts in focus make the book read like a child’s mind.
Another quality that enhances Wolff’s voice is his ability to reserve his adult judgements in recounting his childhood tale, and he is able to be brutally honest about his feelings at the time. For example, when he’s reflecting on the incident with Chuck and Tina, he tells the reader “it did not displease me to see Chuck on the griddle now” (254). As children, we all have bad thoughts, and to ignore them would be to ignore a part of the child’s mind, detracting from the experience of reading directly into a child’s mind. He does inject his current thoughts into the book, but they never interrupt the story directly, they merely serve as reflections, often after significant events. This gives the reader time to process the events, much in the same way as he would’ve had time to process those events as life happened in real time.
Wolff manipulates the voice in this novel with grace and expertise. Through his varying use of voice and focus, he is able to immerse the reader in the mind of a young Jack Wolff, creating an enriching read for any who may stumble upon his memoir.
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