Where the Mountain Stands Alone: Stories of Place in the Monadnock Region
edited by Howard Mansfield, University Press of New England: 368 pages $24.95
Book Review by Rebecca Rule
Where the Mountain Stands Alone testifies to the adage “It takes one to know
one.” Howard Mansfield, who edited this collection of “stories of place in the
Monadnock region,” writes beautifully himself (The Same Ax Twice, In the
Memory House). He selected topnotch work from writers at their peaks for this
soft-cover, coffee-table book, sumptuously illustrated with photographs,
paintings, etchings, and some lovely line drawings by Guillermo Nuñez.
Monadnock, one of the most climbed mountains in the world, may also be one
the most written about. No doubt, sorting through possibilities, Mansfield
faced tricky choices, including how to organize nearly sixty pieces. The topics,
voices, and even the forms range widely, from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s
heartbreaking journal entry, “The Lost Child,” to Haydn S. Pearson’s comic
recollection of a 1912 debate over horses vs. automobiles, “The Grange Votes
Down Automobiles”; from Marge Bruchac’s passionate chronicle of Native
American history to Ernest Hebert’s elegant essay about driving a taxi in Keene
in the 1960s, and what he discovered about class, race, and community; from
Peter Sauer’s terrain map that explains why New Hampshire is so bumpy to
Janisse Ray’s nostalgic trip to “Mr. Roy’s Market.”
Mansfield chose five chronological groupings -- First Encounters, between
Native Americans and the earliest settlers; Making Land, the heyday of farming
and mills; Emptying Out, the gradual decline in population and industry after
the Civil War; and Returning, rediscovery, rebuilding, and the rise of tourism,
traceable to Governor Frank Rollins’ 1899 Old Home Day declaration:
I wish that in the ear of every son and daughter of New Hampshire, in
summer days, might be heard whispered the persuasive words: Come back,
come back! . . . Do you not hear the call? What has become of the old home
where you were born? . . . Do you not remember it -- the old farm back among
the hills, with its rambling buildings, its well-sweep casting its long shadows,
the row of stiff poplar trees, the lilacs and the willows?
The last section, Here and Now in the Global Market, covers recent history.
Though these stories describe a specific place, they could apply to just about
any small New England town, or -- with a slightly different angle -- any small
town in America. We embrace progress. And, simultaneously, resist change.
Mansfield, with the help of many fine writers, examines the evolution of place.
Evolution shows not in our view of the mountain, but the view from the
mountain: farms flourish, stone walls rise; farms decline, stone walls disappear
in the woods; sheep fever denudes the hillsides, logging thins the forests,
housing developments mark the popularity of “country living”; the Golden
Arches come to town, hailed by some, despised by others. Mansfield writes:
All good place-essays are about close observation, being tourists of the near-at-
hand, looking close to home at changes in the land. In this way we avoid
being what the national park rangers call “windshield visitors” -- taking
quick snapshots of vast places. The criteria we applied when deciding if an
essay belongs in this book is this: Does the essay have dirt under its nails? Is
the writer working from a specific place? Is he or she studying this place? In
this book we are working the land to examine our perceptions, overturn our
expectations -- working to see the place as clearly as possible. Or, to put it
another way, to record how one small corner of America has faced the forces
that work to destroy what’s local.
The list of writers Mansfield enlists is a literary who’s who, with deep New
England roots: Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain, Tom Wessels, Ronald Jager,
Jane Brox, Edie Clark, Sy Montgomery, Jim Collins, Tim Clark, Richard Ober,
Kevin Gardner, Judson Hale, Geoffrey Douglas, and many others. Mansfield,
the historian, shows his expertise and control not only in his detailed
introduction and prefaces to each section, but in surprising complementary
material, labeled “Readings” or “Recollections”: excerpts from town reports
and town histories, quotes from newspapers and magazines dating to the 1800s,
journal and diary entries, a deed from 1866, a letter to the editor from 1946,
personal letters. This a full and varied volume, inviting readers to spend -- as I
did -- many hours, not reading cover to cover, but a little of this, a little of that.
Did you know, for example, that “All cultivated blueberries are descended
from one bush in Greenland”? Roger B. Swain says so in his true blue treatise
“Blueberry Planet.” Martha Weinman Lear gives a reverent insider’s take on the
MacDowell Colony, where so many artists have found inspiration. She unifies
her essay with the question “How did it go today?” and ends with a reverie:
One recent week Galway Kinnell read his poems . . . Then I read, and
composers James Primosch and Mr. (George) Tsontakis played, keyboard and
strings, Mozart, Cole Porter, compositions of their own. We quit early, as
usual, and went back to our digs to check out the inner-weather reports for
tomorrow, but the melodies lingered on. All the melodies linger on.
sometimes . . . at night I think I hear Bernstein humming. Lovely, Lenny, I
say. How did it go today? Not bad, he says, not bad.
Then, sly Mansfield offers a contrary view, a tart palate cleanser. Comic novelist
Dawn Powell found MacDowell annoying, especially its rigid routine and
“politely veiled law of appearing at whatever reading or concert some
egotistical colonist announces for the evening.” In a letter to her husband she
says “MacDowell was off his rocker up here for the last few years,” possibly
driven mad by a relentless shrieking bird. “My theory is that Mrs. MacDowell
started this place after his death to see how many other artists would be driven
nuts by it, too.”
Ah! Commentary with dirt under its nails, Howard Mansfield’s favorite kind.
About the author
Rebecca Rule is a humorist, author and storyteller, who is the author of short
fiction, including The Best Revenge, winner of the NH Writers Project award for
fiction, and her most recent book, Could Have Been Worse: True Stories,
Embellishments and Outright Lies.
|Where the Mountain Stands
Alone: Stories of Place in
the Monadnock Region
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