Using the past to understand the present

Fun A Day Reseda 2019 has begun! My project is a new novel, Snow in Los Angeles. During January, I’ll take breaks from writing to share with you themes and other insights from writing the book.

It seems like a strange choice to write a novel set in the winter of 1948-1949 when there are more important things happening in the world right now. But I set Snow in Los Angeles in the past specifically to understand these issues. America after World War II may seem alien to us in the 21st century, but many of the problems we struggle with today are rooted in this world. The beliefs people had then persist today. And when people say “Make America Great Again,” this might be the era that they want to go back to.

So what was America like 70 years ago, and what can we learn from it? Here’s what I’ve discovered so far as I begin writing Snow in Los Angeles.

A book set in the past requires extensive research. While it takes work to learn about the cars they drove and fashions they wore, the hardest part is getting into the mindset of the people of that era. The problem is that many of the beliefs of the time make us uncomfortable, and we fear that they will turn off our audience. So we wind up with scenes like this from A League of Their Own.

It gives us a smile and nods to an emerging future. But it also raises questions. Would that ballpark allow an African American woman on the field? Or in the ballpark at all? Consider that today, white people are calling the police when they see African Americans in places they have a right to be doing ordinary things they have the right to do.

And how would Kit feel after catching that strong throw? Would it be “Wow, she has a strong arm! It’s a shame she can’t play with us. Segregation is so unfair!” Or would a young white woman from rural Oregon think of something more racist?

If we want to understand the past, we have to make an honest investigation of people’s beliefs and the reasons behind them. We can point out the flaws in those beliefs through irony or by hinting at what will come in the future. (In one scene I’ve written, a teacher points out that teenagers in 1948 may live long enough to see the 21st century.) However, we can’t slip into anachronism because it makes us feel more comfortable.

This matters because these expectations and beliefs still exist today. Consider what Republican candidate Courtland Sykes said in last year’s Senate race in Missouri:

I want to come home to a home cooked dinner at six every night, one that she fixes and one that I expect one day to have daughters learn to fix after they become traditional homemakers and family wives—think Norman Rockwell here and Gloria Steinem be damned.

And Courtland Sykes isn’t some “get off my lawn!” curmudgeon. He was born in 1980. I’m old enough to be his father.

The more I dive into the world of 1948 Los Angeles, the more relevant those issues become. If we want to understand the present, we must be willing to look at the past — especially the parts that make us uncomfortable. When we understand where we came from, we can learn how to shift our direction towards a better future for all.