Book Review: Turn and Jump

Howard Mansfield. Turn and Jump: How Time and Place Fell Apart. Rockport, Maine: Down East Books, 2010. 195 pages.

Today we take for granted that time is rigidly (and sometimes mercilessly) segmented. But the way people think about time has changed dramatically over the last two hundred years, with local and natural time, based on sunrise, sunset, and the seasons, giving way to universal, artificial time, marked off by clocks and timetables. In TURN AND JUMP, Howard Mansfield shares a few stories that provide glimpses into times passed–and time’s past.

Its a very local history, strongly rooted in the source material. This has benefits and drawbacks for the reader. On the plus side, the reader is fully immersed in the details of what Mansfield’s describing–he faithfully relates every detail he can find. His chapter based primarily on records that document a century of Derby’s, a department store in Peterborough, New Hampshire. It’s infinitely more interested than I’ve made it sound, and it’s a piece of writing that any historian can envy and any archivist can fall in love with: Mansfield shows that, with the right documents, it’s possible to bring the past to life. The downside to this close use of source documents is that the reader is at the mercy of the author: she may not find the little details so artfully shared as interesting as the author did. It can be hard to convey with ink and paper the thrill of traveling back in time by handling primary source documents, seeing the past through its own eyes.

As fits a book about the struggles between local and national time, TURN AND JUMP alternates between “big” national history, like the railroads’ creation of time zones and B. F. Keith’s innovation of continuous vaudeville, and the minutely local history of Mansfield’s New England. It’s a good mix.

As writing, there’s little to fault with TURN and JUMP. Much of the time it’s a truly enveloping read in the way that the best narrative non-fiction should be: Mansfield shares not just a story, but a point of view. The downside that I found was his tendency to romanticize the past. It’s strongly implied that, since standard time was an invention of the railroads, and the railroads were businesses run for profit, there’s something unseemly about it. In fact, standard time is a real boon to both communication and commerce, and probably a historical inevitability: it’s an undoubtedly good thing that the 3:35 from Dubuque and the 4:15 from Platteville aren’t trying to occupy the same piece of track at the same time. Similarly, it’s not necessarily a bad thing that a route which once took cattle drovers three days to traverse on foot can now be driven in an hour–certainly good news if you’re the one who would otherwise have to slug through the mud for three days.

TURN AND JUMP is definitely a worthwhile read, with some fascinating historical elements, like the chapter on the one-time blockbuster play The Old Homestead. But don’t be surprised if the author doesn’t convince you that life was intrinsically better when it was lit by tallow and whale oil rather than fluorescent and LED.

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