Lately, I’ve become particularly interested in old books. I like how they provide an unfiltered snapshot of another time. Not long ago, I was browsing an antique store and found an obscure collection of wonderfully imaginative children’s stories originally published in 1901 by British author E. Nesbit called Nine Unlikely Tales for Children. Part of what makes Nesbit's stories so engaging is that the children in it are often flawed and not entirely good and moral. Several of the tales have a fantasy element, often with a child being transported to another world. She starts, as many novelists do, by using everyday details of the period to establish the familiar ordinary world to provide a contrast to the extraordinary world. But for a modern reader, the ordinary world she described seems both familiar and extraordinary. It adds a whole other layer to the fantasy.
For example, in "The Cockatoucan" a girl and her nursemaid take the wrong "omnibus" and end up in a magic world. The omnibus seems remarkably similar to a modern bus, but as they get off, they talk to the driver who is sitting behind two horses—it’s 1901, so the horsepower is literal. The story later features an "Automatic Machine," which is described as, "those which you see in a railway station--greedy, grasping things which take your pennies and give you next to nothing in chocolate and no change." It’s foreign, and yet just like the machines we drop quarters into now, where we are always disappointed by the plastic toy that is never as good as advertised.
It makes me wonder, what things do we take for granted today, that will seem foreign 100 years from now? Or even 25 years from now? Another of my random finds was Betty-Anne's Helpful Household Hints, Volume 1 by Betty-Anne Hastings with Mary-beth Connors, published in 1983. It reminded me that not so long ago we used TV trays, and that some two liter soda bottles had a plastic container that fit over the bottom (makes a good planter). There were a lot of tips on flower arranging, camping for family vacations, and uses for nylon stockings.
When we set out to write a book, we usually have in mind what we want to convey. But the wonderful thing about a book, as opposed to on-line articles and social media posts, is its potential for longevity, and the opportunity to unwittingly convey more than we realize about the time we live in through the things we take for granted.
Incidentally, if you’d like to read E. Nesbit’s Nine Unlikely Tales, you can find them on-line here. If you want to read Betty-Anne’s Helpful Household Tips, you’ll have to search far and wide for a copy. Good luck!