At a time of change, when common ground is becoming less common, it helps to have a tour guide who can navigate the American landscape. That’s a job for Howard Mansfield, who offers a unique lens on our history, customs and habits. A cultural historian and author of eight books, Mansfield is the guy you wish could accompany you on a long walk. You just know he would see things that you’d miss along the way.

“Summer Over Autumn: A Small Book of Small-Town Life” is Mansfield’s latest title, a collection of short essays that’s modest only in size. These 21 eclectic pieces find the author out and about in his hometown of Hancock, New Hampshire; running in a local election; working his land; and tending to Christopher Hogwood, his very theatrical pig.

“Our pig is a Zen eater. He becomes his food,” Mansfield says. “No remorse. No guilty dinner chat about fat or sugar or pesticides.”

The book highlights Mansfield’s range, showing him to be equal parts citizen, philosopher and cultural critic, weighing in on issues large and small. Among his musings, he tackles the thorny problem of elders behind the wheel; considers the jagged history of a Queen Anne chair that he inherited upon buying his house; and laments the planting of invasive roses that won’t give up.

In “The Skeezix Chronicles,” Mansfield recalls the story of an antique Ford 9N tractor that his wife bought for his birthday. “To operate a 9N is to step back to our machine past,” he says, “to a time before cars had power steering, power brakes, and automatic transmissions, before cars got so easy to drive that some people busy themselves texting.”

In the title story, Mansfeld adds to the mythology of northern New England weather, describing the period in late August – “Summer Over Autumn” – when the two seasons co-exist. “It’s a moment poised on the seesaw, right at the fulcrum,” he notes. “Sitting still, you can feel summer passing, retreating as fog retreats. It’s like passing through a doorway.”


If Mansfield has a knack for elevating the ordinary and seeing it fresh, he is equally adept at decoding transactions that are often mired in complication. Two of the best pieces in the book exemplify this skill: In “The Ask,” Mansfield takes on the matter of fundraising and how the ritual dance of asking for donations clashes with our sensibilities.

“In small towns, and society in general, we live by the Don’t Ask. We let our neighbors pursue their lives in happiness or sorrow,” he writes. “We give our neighbors the room to live. We don’t question their contradictions. When I was younger, I would have called this hypocrisy. Now I think it may be kindness, or just the mercy we show each other.”

And his essay, “On Going Late to Yard Sales,” is sufficiently astute that you’ll think twice about showing up early.

“Summer Over Autumn” is one of those books that you read, nodding in assent. Mansfield delivers an embarrassment of quotable lines and passages – more than many writers manage in a lifetime. While much of the book centers on small-town life, the takeaway from each piece tends to be universal. Mansfield’s wry, humane, poetic brand of common sense has no geographic bounds.

Joan Silverman writes op-eds, essays and book reviews. Her work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune and Dallas Morning News.

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