My Historical Romance with Air-Conditioning

time travel

I read a lot of books in a lot of genres, including a lot of historical fiction.  One of the things I like about fiction is that it allows me to put myself into the lives of people I wouldn’t otherwise meet and learn how to see the world from their eyes.  There are actual studies out there that show that reading decent fiction can rewire your brain to make it more empathetic[1]

I’ve learned more history from historical fiction than I’ve learned from any history teacher I’ve had, and this is from someone with a political science degree.  I read the covers off the Little House on the Prairie books when I was a kid and I’m currently approximately 5,600 pages into the Outlander[2] series by Diana Gabaldon.

I have learned to read things with a critical eye.  Every author has an agenda slash story they want to tell and their own particular prejudices and perspectives they bring to the table.  Sometimes for the sake of word count, sometimes for the sake of pacing and/or plotting, certain things get glossed over.  I know (now) that Laura Ingalls Wilder was completely oblivious to the plight of the Native Americans her family was displacing.  Gabaldon gives only a passing nod to the Native Americans and slaves she comes across in her history, a sort of “I recognize this is bad, but what can I do about it from this historical perspective without getting lynched myself” kind of nod.  Which is probably historically accurate, but it would be nice if the modern-day characters thrust into the 18th century were a little more squicky about it.  To be fair, the ‘modern-day’ characters are themselves from the mid-twentieth century, and those folks weren’t known for their enlightenment on those subjects either.

All of which is a stupidly long intro to get to the point I’m trying to make: as wonderful as those larger points are, they’re not what fascinate me the most.   

Last week I was doing college tours with my daughter.  It was June in Pennsylvania and it was so hot that if you pulled a berry off a bush it was already in cobbler form.  Pennsylvania doesn’t take its air conditioning as seriously as Georgia does.  Georgia summers are brutal in theory, but not in practice because we spend them going from air-conditioned car to air-conditioned home to air-conditioned office.  We don’t walk anywhere.  We drink iced tea until it is time to switch to iced-down mint juleps or whatever your on-the-rocks drink of choice is.   Every room has a ceiling fan in it, and the architecture is designed with high ceilings to suck away hot air.

Not so much in the north.  The culture there walks everywhere, not every building has central air, the older buildings have low ceilings and western windows.  I violated my own rule of hiding away my wiggly-jiggly upper arms for your convenience simply so I didn’t sweat to death.  Look away if it bothers you. 

Semi-coincidentally, at the time I was reading “An Echo in the Bone,” the 7th Outlander novel[3] which takes place largely in exactly the same place I was traveling.  It was kind of fun noting the places recalled in the book.  Gabaldon does a good job of exactly describing the buildings and fashion and way of life of the time.  As I walked there, sweating, wearing sandals and a sundress with much of my decolletage showing, ducking into air-conditioned restaurants to get an iced-down drink, I thought about Claire Fraser, having to cover her poor body in fabric for modesty’s sake, and having no access to air-conditioning or ice.  Or a shower.  Or a flushable potty.

At the end of the day, I stood in the shower washing the grime and sweat off me, getting rid of the stickiness between my fingers, feeling the cool air of my hotel room against my skin and clean sheets.  Claire would just have to go to her grimy bed all sticky and gross after a dinner of squirrel stew because there was no well-stocked grocery store with a refrigerated meat section, smelling a chamber pot in a corner of the room half boiling in the heat, fainting from the ‘vapors’ twice a day, which were really just heatstroke.   

I get why Claire was in love with Jamie and time traveled to be with him – he’s pretty awesome.  But so is air-conditioning.  And I’m in love with that, too. 

[1] Can Reading a Fictional Story Make You More Empathetic? | Psychology Today

[2] Stop telling me to watch the series.  I have a very particular vision of Jamie Fraser in my head and it is beautiful and perfect in every way and I am very much in love with it.  The actor who plays him, while good looking, does not match that vision and I will not have my vision despoiled.

[3] Currently ranked 24th in “Time Travel Romance” on Amazon – I cannot believe that is a whole category of its own. 

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