I have mixed feelings about this story. And they’re really quite hard to explain.
Let me start by saying that I don’t dislike the story. Quite the opposite, really, and the more I think about it, the deeper it seems. There’s a lot to take from this story, depending on how you choose to interpret it and what you think is important in it. Casually reading through it, you might take it as a sort of ode to the written word and the postal system, but I think there’s more to it than that. There are subtle layers woven in that deal with the need for human contact, with the value of education, with the desire for information beyond our own personal scope of experience. In short, I suppose, there are a lot of things in the story about what it is to be human.
It’s set in an indeterminate time period and locale; somewhere in a rural, wooded place, relatively far from any major towns or metropolitan areas. There are cars, though horses are still used for transportation as well; but it seems likely that there aren’t telephones, though whether that’s because there aren’t any lines in this area or because the time period predates the telephone is unclear. Letter-writing seems to be the primary form of communication, but even with telephones letters were still very popular, so that’s not really much of a clue. Literacy is still a luxury rather than an assumption, so it would stand to reason that schooling at the time in which the story is set is not a widespread or easily accessible commodity. This indeterminate setting is the main thing that confuses my opinion on the story; because the setting feels very vague and hard to pin down, the whole story feels sort of in-flux, if that makes any sense.
I suppose it could feasibly take place in the same time period in which “Powerhouse” was set. Which doesn’t really help much, because I felt similarly about that story, aside from the other issues I outlined there.
The story follows Cora, who lives in a secluded valley with her husband Tom but longs to know of the world beyond. Her literate nephew is coming to visit for a month and she intends to learn from him how to read and write so that she can use the wonderful postal system to get information from all around the world outside her valley. Though her age is never revealed, the very few tiny mentions of her appearance sound as though she’s past middle-age, which makes her childish wonder with regards to letters and information and the postal system a bit jarring. But i suppose her reactions to these new things in her life are akin to the way our parents and grandparents may have reacted to advances like the Internet and cell phones, and the way we’ll someday react to whatever major advances eventually supplant the technologies we’ve grown accustomed to.
If you read this story with the Internet in mind, rather than traditional snail-mail, it’s still surprisingly relevant. A world of information at your fingertips, limited only by your own ability to access and understand it. It’s something we take for granted. And even as I was reading this story, I was amused by Cora’s child-like wonder at all the things that I wouldn’t even bat an eye at, much less care about so passionately — writing for free samples or information packets, things of that nature. To me it’s all commonplace; I hardly even see those kinds of offers anymore, simply slide my gaze past them without a second thought. I’m sure most of us do that, these days. And while Bradbury obviously wasn’t writing this with the information super-highway in mind, I do imagine that the sort of free offer advertisements Cora is so delighted by were to him what pop-up ads are to us. Mainly, just things that get in the way of the content you’re actually interested in, things which you can easily ignore and move past. But to someone who hasn’t experienced anything, even ads are wondrous. After all, just think how many times you’ve heard of an older user getting a virus on their computer because they believed the pop-up that said they won a million dollars?
Ultimately this is a story worth reading, but I do caution that there is a certain quality that feels… off. I really don’t know how to describe it though, so I suppose I’ll just leave my opinion of the story as “good but not fantastic.” And, really, if a story is at least “good,” then it deserves to be given a chance, right?