Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Good Old Days


Virtual champagne all around because I’m celebrating the launch of my twelfth Molly Murphy book, THE FAMILY WAY. When Molly fled from Ireland in Murphy’s Law I never imagined that she’d be around this long, or that she’d be happily married by this time.

As you can surmise from the title she is pregnant and the story considers the true  meaning of family. But my Molly books seem to have gravitated toward highlighting the role of women in the early twentieth century and especially the injustices to women—the suffrage movement, the lack of rights, lack of freedom, even the dreaded corset that made women’s lives such a misery. This book is no different: it focuses on the difference between being pregnant and married and being pregnant and unmarried—literally the difference between life and death for a lot of girls. And the unfair double standard in which the man walks away with reputation and life intact while the woman’s life will never be the same again.

When I write about the early nineteen hundreds it’s strange. I want to keep everything as authentic as possible, but there are certain aspects I have to avoid. Some things are just too modern. Nobody would believe some of the slang because it sounds as if it comes from the Sixties. Did you know they said “Far out?” And who would believe that Molly opened a can of chili for dinner? And yet I have a photograph of a display of cans of chili on Macy’s food counter, 1900.

The other parts of life I choose not to mention, for fear of turning off my readers, are things that people of the time took for granted: kitchens swarming with cockroaches, mice, rats, even in the best of households.( You don’t see any cockroaches in the kitchen in Downton Abbey but I bet there were some.)  Bedbugs, fleas, lice. Hair that is washed every few months. Clothes that are sponged down but never laundered or dry-cleaned. People who take a bath in front of the kitchen fire once a week. No shampoo. No toothpaste. No feminine products. Certainly no deodorant. Life was dirty and smelly for most people. But because they took the smells for granted, I choose to skip over them. Although I do let the reader see what hard work it was to do the laundry in a tub, put it through the mangle, beat the carpets, shop every day for food because there is no refrigerator or to watch a loved one die because there are no antibiotics.

I’m really thankful I live today, aren’t you? I can vote, own property, drive my own car, know that nothing is going to scurry across my kitchen floor at night, throw my clothes in the washer and bring them out clean... So as a woman, what are you most thankful for in our modern life? Improvements in health-care, sanitation or freedom ? We’ve come a long way, baby, but is there still a way to go?


  1. Goodness, it’s virtually impossible to pick just one “most thankful for” in our modern life . . . . I wonder if folks ever really stop to think how difficult life was in earlier times, and not just for women? I’m thankful there are no cockroaches or little beady-eyed things running rampant through my kitchen but if pressed to choose one “thankful for,” I think I’d have to say the freedom . . . and yet, that is not a wholly accurate answer since there are many, many women for whom freedom does not exist, even in the world we live in today. It’s fascinating to look at the world Molly inhabits and even though we tend to think how much “better” it is today, I fear we still have a long way to go . . . .

  2. Congratulations on the new book Rhys! We are all in awe of your productivity!

    After this description, I'm very grateful I didn't live in those times. Just think of all the things that have been discovered since then! I guess I would choose health care, because a couple of folks very dear to me would not be alive if they'd lived in Molly's days.

  3. Funny that you mention laundry, Rhys. Just this weekend my washing machine died in the middle of a load of laundry.

    Being the progressive man that I am, I thought, no problem, I'll just finish everything by hand. Several hours later, I was on my way to the store to order a new machine to make sure it would arrive before I was faced with that again.

    I don't envy life back in those times, but I have much respect for those that lived it.

    Congrats on the new book Rhys!

  4. Whoop whoop! Congratulations on THE FAMILY WAY!

    Reading your description of 'real' life in 1900, I'm cringing. We are so spoiled. Can't even imagine writing a book on a typewriter.

    Running downstairs to move my laundry to the dryer...

  5. I need to read these books!!! Congratulations.

    I often hear people complain about "doing the dishes" -- for me, loading a dishwasher does not seem like work at all. I did dishes by hand for our family of seven from the time I was in 6th grade.

    The same goes for laundry -- having carried a basket of clothes out to a shed where the washing machine lived, and then having hung wet laundry on the line . . . "modern" machinery is my favorite.

    I am so interested in women's history -- thank you again, Rhys, for bringing these stories to light.

  6. Congratulations, Rhys!

    What a great achievement!!!

  7. Health care. Definitely health care. If not for 20th century obstetrics, I wouldn't have lived past the age of 30.

    Beyond that, the incredible advancements that our feminist foremothers bought us. When my grandmother was a little girl, women couldn't vote. Her older sister was forced to leave her teaching job when she got married. My mother was nearly turned out of college in her senior year because she got pregnant - after marrying the summer before.

    Not to mention the "employment - women" section of the classifieds, the widespread acceptance of sexual harassment and the idea that domestic violence was a matter between a man and his wife.

    I'm so glad I live in a time when I can take out a loan in my own name or get surgery without my husband's permission, and my daughters can play a variety of sports and have their choice of colleges.

    Say it with me, ladies: FEMINISM. It's not a bad word!

  8. Whoops! I got so carried away, I forgot to congratulate Rhys on THE FAMILY WAY!

  9. Yay, RHys! WHoo hoo. And it's also interesting to be able to make your main character happy. YOu know? LOVE your books, and love you. xoo

    Oh, and you know me, I can't even go CAMPING. (Rosemary is our brave one, right?) To me, it's rustic if the hairdryer is too low-voltage.

    I only got my first job in broadcasting because of the new EEOC law! SO--counting blessings.

  10. Hank said: To me, it's rustic if the hairdryer is too low-voltage.


  11. I'm so pleased that this series has given me a chance to highlight what women had to go through and what they have achieved. It's become an ongoing theme for me now.

  12. Congratulations on birthing a new book, Rhys. I wish it a long, prosperous life.

    Even since the 1950's our lives have changed, so much. Women were not expected to work outside the home--my own mother starting working in an office in 1953, when I was 2 and my sister was an infant, and for a pittance, because men were "supporting a family". Never mind that my dad was drinking his paycheck every week, and Mother worked to save us from the poorhouse. Divorce was less of an option, even then, let alone at the turn of the 20th century.

    So little has been written about women's place in history, not nearly as much as about men's. One of my favorite series for children were from the American Girl doll makers; they placed girls doing everyday things in historical eras of American history. Since the company was sold to Mattel that is not as big a part of the cachet of the dolls, but it was wonderful for my own daughters.

    So, in addition to adding to the enjoyment of our daily lives, Rhys, you are also educating us about life in an era we can only dimly imagine. Thank you, on all fronts. I've only read two of the Molly books, but I look forward with great pleasure to reading them all, including this new one.

  13. I'm with Julia. If it weren't for modern obstetrics, I wouldn't be here, and neither would my beautiful grown daughter.

    We take so much for granted, including the fact that women no longer routinely die in childbirth...

    Hanks, laughing! I was just complaining on book tour about the anemic hotel hairdryers:-)

    Rhys, huge congrats on The Family Way!!! I'm waiting for my copy to arrive, and trying to figure out how I can make time to curl up and read.

    I do wonder, though, with all our modern conveniences, what happened to our leisure time?

  14. Karen in Ohio, I didn't know American Girls sold to Mattel. What a shame they've dropped the historical stories. My daughter had a Samantha doll, and we read all the books. It was such a great way to bring the past to life for girls...

  15. Deb, Pleasant Company sold to Mattel quite a long time ago, in 1998.

    Now that I said that, I had to check. Turns out, they do still have the books, and quite a lot of them: http://store.americangirl.com/agshop/static/books.jsp


    My girls were pretty small when the dolls first came out, and the then-six year old wanted a Samantha. I told her if she saved half of the cost (they were $84 then, which was a LOT for a doll), that I would make sure she got one for Christmas. Some year. She saved the money and Santa brought her a doll that year. Then she and her little sister saved up to later buy Felicity, Molly, Kirsten, Addie, and finally, Josefina. All of which are still in my house--my first "grandchildren". LOL They are wonderful dolls, and I loved the historically accurate clothing and accessories, too.

    I guess Rebecca Rubin would be the closest doll to Molly Murphy's era, and although quite a bit different, ethnically, she is also in New York City in that time period. http://store.americangirl.com/agshop/static/rebeccadoll.jsp

  16. Rhys, I've read the Evan books (miss him so much!) and the Lady Georgie books, and I've just started on the Molly books. It's nice to know I have so much to look forward to!

    I am grateful for the advances in medical care. Even in the 1950s things were so much better than they were thirty years earlier. One of my sisters who is now 62 was quite ill as a toddler. When the pediatrician diagnosed the problem and told my mother what it was, she nearly fainted. One of her younger brothers died from that illness when he was three years old. She told the doctor, and he reassured her that not only is it no longer a fatal illness due to modern medications, but "the common cold is more serious" than what my sister had. (I don't remember what it was but she's been in good health ever since then.)

    When I was in high school, someone gave a lecture to the entire school ( school for girls) about "considering" higher education "because you might want to work after you get married"! I'm not even going to comment on that!

  17. The American Girl books are still around -- got a Josefina installment in my Malice book bag last year and loved being able to share it with a young friend.

    Congratulations, Rhys, on another book and for bringing Molly and her times to life.

  18. Toasting you, Rhys! Congratulations!

    The first thing that popped into my head was yoga pants...Hah. These days, we can run out of the house in total sartorial comfort. That's what I love about being a modern woman.

    And I love that I can be smart, know what I mean? I don't have to sit around making babies and doing housework, or learning the womenly arts of needlepoint and singing. I can do any cerebral thing I want to do. Love that.

  19. Congratulations, Rhys, I love your Molly books! I'm most grateful for antibiotics - I'd be quite dead by now without them.

  20. Big congratulations to you, Rhys. It is a fine line you walk, isn't it? Setting the scene without grossing out readers.

    There are literally countless things in my life for which I'm grateful, things my grandmother and other women of her time didn't have available to them. What I'm most grateful for however, is the change in attitudes, the openness with which ideas are discussed, debated and brought to light.

    My grandmother was born in 1900. When she was six her mother divorced my great-grandfather to marry another man. (That husband was killed in a cattle rustling incident, and she went on to marry three more times.) The new husband didn't like children so Gram and her siblings were left with their father. There being no such thing as daycare at the time, when he went to work, my great-grandfather sent the older kids to school and left the younger ones at home in their San Francisco apartment. A neighbor reported him and all six were sent to an orphanage until they turned 16.

    The stories Gram told me about her life were fascinating. Although we'd been born just 50 years apart, her life was so completely different than mine. I came of age during the "let it all hang out" sexual revolution; Gram gave birth to her first child on the kitchen floor of her S.F. apartment, having married my grandfather nine months earlier. He'd proposed to her as they rode a cable car, and she didn't want to "cause a scene" by turning him down.

    Women today have choices undreamt of by most women in my grandmother's day. It's more than just voting, working, having access to healthcare; it has to do with the freedom to think for ourselves and make our own decisions about our own lives.

  21. Rhys, when I read about Molly arriving in New York, I felt connected to my Irish ancestry in a way I'd never been previously. Your books are a wonderful place to go. Thank you.