book reviews / culture / research

Book Review: The Way We Never Were

The Way We Never Were: American Families & the Nostalgia TrapThe Way We Never Were: American Families & the Nostalgia Trap

by Stephanie Coontz

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

View more of my reviews

It’s a challenge as a writer to build believable characters. Your readers must relate to them, grow to understand them, maybe even empathize with. That requires a cautious mix of reality (unless you’re writing fantasy, readers demand characters, setting and plots that could happen) and fiction (a world that could be theirs if only). Together, these two ingredients build a story that readers can get lost in.

What if those reader memories (the ‘fact’ in this scenario) are false? That’s what writers face in setting their stories in post WWII, when “all the women are strong, men good looking, and children above average”. Because none of that is true. Yet, this type of false memory is so pervasive, it’s been christened the Lake Wobegon effect. It afflicts everyone from CEOs to college students to parents. The effect is closely related to the Confirmation bias, a tendency to search for, interpret or remember information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions.

So the question is: Should your characters behave in a manner that matches people’s memories or as life was?

Here are some examples, from Stephanie Coontz’s book, The Way We Never Were:

The Ozzie and Harriet Family

That loving nurturing family where Dad always had a job and Mom never had to. Where the 2.2 kids went to school without question, never dropped out, did their homework and helped with chores.  Where was I?

My Mother Was a Saint

Mom was always patient, wise, with eyes in the back of her head and time for kids and dad whenever they needed her. She was brilliant despite not going to college and rarely leaving the house to go to the gym, take an evening class, hold down a parttime job, those places where moms get to talk to adults. She cooked, cleaned, gardened, helped with projects, PTA’d, ironed, entertained friends. All with a calm equanimity that taught her children that every girl could be SuperMom.

We Always Stood on Our Own Two feet

No one was on welfare. Everyone’s family took care of themselves and those around them. Kids got paper routes to buy their extras and Dads got raises just in the nick of time.

We Never Did That

  • talked back to our parents or teachers
  • did drugs or alcohol
  • parents never argued in front of kids
  • families always had heart-warming reunions
  • The other guy always got laid off and lost his job
  • Big Business was kind and generous to its employees

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing TeachersCisco guest blogIMS tech expert, and a monthly contributor to Today’s Author. In her free time, she is the editor of a K-8 technology curriculumK-8 keyboard curriculumK-8 Digital Citizenship curriculum, and creator of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a thriller that should be out to publishers next summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

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5 thoughts on “Book Review: The Way We Never Were

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Dictionary for Writers and Editors | WordDreams...

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  3. That nostalgia trap is the same one that generates all those fluffy email articles, claiming how good life was back in the 1950’s. I lived through the 1950’s – life was misery for me, disorderly for others, and sheer hell for all those people so unrepresented. I suspect the fantasy comes from families like mine that wanted everyone else to believe that we lived that perfect Lake Woebegone life. We didn’t. Most everyone else didn’t either. Great review of a book I’ll have to read.


    • How inciteful. It’s well accepted that perception is reality. One I run into a lot has to do with education. Everyone believes the American education system is broken–except for their school. Theirs is wonderful.


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