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Hard Times and Historical Fiction

January 23, 2011

My sweet spot for historical fiction, memoir, and nonfiction runs roughly between the late 19th century and 1950 or so. I’ve read a lot of good writing about World War II:

Connie Willis’s Blackout books.

A Fierce Radiance by Lauren Belfer.

Nothing But a Smile by Steve Amick.

I just finished reading My Own Two Feet, by Beverly Cleary. Her excellent memoir covers events of the late 1930s– just as the Depression is ending, and World War II is a distant rumbling in Europe.

As I finished reading the memoir, I found a connection between all of these books. The nation is at war. People on the home front are deeply connected to “the war effort.”

And to the sacrifices that need to be made. Scrap metal, gasoline, nylon. Sugar, meat and eggs.

There are ration books, and shortages in stores. It’s for the war effort. Everybody pitches in. Army women going to a dance share a dress. Birthday cake? save sugar ration for a few weeks.

The simplicity of community spirit about that, the collaboration, appeals to me deeply. Reading about those hard historical times gets comforting because of that level of collaboration. I know the times were hard. But unifying. I get a bad case of nostalgia reading about that communal spirit. It must have been hard, but there’s a forthrightness about the characterization. You save, you plan, you ration. It looked easy, or if not easy, matter of fact to an idealized degree.

When I watch the news, or, more likely, see footage of troops watching football games from faraway countries, I remember… there’s a war on.Multiple wars on multiple fronts.

And then I go to the grocery store. And it’s heaped with stuff! Meat! Nylons!  Strawberries in January!

Reading Beverly Cleary, I marveled at the economic shifts. $150 for a whole year of college! One hundred fifty dollars!!! Last night I went to a charity auction where people raised twice that for a single night’s date. Yes- it was for charity. But it’s the scale that amazes me. A nickel buying a sandwich and a glass of milk for Beverly Cleary’s lunch. A nickel disappears in the handful of change I get back after spending $40 at the grocery store. Wow.

I don’t blog about politics. Because I’m much more comfortable sounding like I know what I’m talking about when I write about books. But I find myself feeling perplexed by the cultural shifts that have made now possible.  Credit and debt. No draft.  Factories elsewhere. The ability to ship food from all over, cheaply. These are just guesses at what’s fed the difference between then and now. I am not going to say that I would rather have lived then, by any means. I like antibiotics, and being able to wear pants, and the Internet, and all these wonderful things I’m lucky enough to take for granted.

I live a lucky, easy, life. I couldn’t write this if I hadn’t been so lucky, no matter what. I haven’t had to make a lot of sacrifices or do without things. I may yowl and complain… but I’m lucky.

I’m feeling more than a little sheepish, though. And resolving to be less extravagant.  Or at least eat my vegetables before they get vile in the crisper….

One Comment leave one →
  1. January 23, 2011 3:54 pm

    A lot of us feel that way, to one extent or another. It’s why I posted this piece from Foreign Policy, by a Marine who wants to talk about what’s useful and not. No clear answers, but important questions.

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