We all know what time is, but when called on to define it, we can’t. Benjamin Franklin said time is money. For Howard Mansfield, time is people.
For example, he begins by introducing us to Ebenezer Edwards, who fought at Concord’s North Bridge in the first full-scale battle of the Revolutionary War. But Mansfield is more interested in the fact that Edwards ate roasted corn on August 14, 1803, at his farm in Temple, New Hampshire. He was a farmer, and he kept time by the seasons, which meant planting, hoeing, harvesting, and eating.
Just a few miles away–and nearly 200 years later–we find Clarence Derby, whose family ran a department store in Peterborough. Derby’s closed in 1985 after 103 years of service. Why? Discounters. Malls. Progress. But to Derby, it came down to people: “Society in general gradually turned to: What can I get out of it for me? It’s ‘me first.'”
In between, we meet Benjamin Franklin Keith, an early proponent of “continuous vaudeville,” for which patrons could buy a 10-cent ticket and stay all day. We attend a performance of The Old Homestead, a nostalgic play about a New Hampshire farm; it debuted in 1886 and is still running. The playwright, Denman Thompson, played the role of Old Josh 15,000 times before retiring.
Pretty impressive–until you compare it with the story Marge Bruchac tells. She’s an Abenaki, and her people have lived in what is now New England for thousands of years. Some might say it all ended in a massacre 334 years ago on a riverbank in what’s now Turners Falls, Massachusetts, during King Philip’s War, but she wouldn’t. She thinks the war is still going on.
It’s hard to summarize Turn & Jump. The title comes from early vaudeville, when performers would do their “turn” in one theater and then “jump” to the next, sometimes hundreds of miles away. That’s a good description of Mansfield’s book, too. He does his turn on Ebenezer Edwards, then jumps time and space to Denman Thompson or Marge Bruchac. The connections are what gives the book its power.
But Mansfield’s argument is that we’re losing the connection between time and place. “What we want from the past is presence,” he asserts. “We want the moment restored.” We want the family farm, the local department store, the dime ticket to a day of wonders, the taste of roasted corn that we raised ourselves. But somehow, the time for such things has passed.
Turn & Jump: How Time & Place Fell Apart by Howard Mansfield (Down East Books; $24.95)