Cover to Cover

Books by UNH faculty and alumni
The Meetinghouse Tragedy, by Charles E. Clark
At the Breast by Linda M. Blum
Time Machines by Paul Nahin

The Meetinghouse Tragedy
An Episode in the Life of a New England Town
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"This is a variation on the old trunk-in-the-attic theme," Charles Clark begins, "the often imagined but seldom realized serendipitous discovery right under one's nose of a gem that opens up a story, a piece of history." In 1974, Clark, who is professor emeritus of history, inherited a family Bible. Tucked between the pages was a stitched pamphlet of 43 handwritten verses that begins, "Attention give and you shall hear/A melancholy theme/Tis such an instance as there is/But very seldom seen." The ballad goes on to describe an accident that took place on Sept. 7, 1773, in Wilton, N.H., where townspeople had gathered to raise a new meetinghouse. A weak support beam gave way, causing 53 men to plummet 27 feet to the floor below. Five died and several were severely injured.

Clark vowed to investigate the incident someday, sensing that it might "add texture to our picture of revolutionary-era rural communities and at the same time make a compelling story." The Meetinghouse Tragedy is the result of his research, an elegantly written documentary of the way towns functioned, how architecture was designed and constructed, how religion was practiced, and how the culture understood and recorded history. We learn, for example, that the town voted to provide "one Barrel of West India Rum, Five barrels of New England Rum, One barrel of Good Brown Sugar, Half a Box of Good Lemons, [and] Two Loves of Loaf Sugar" to make punch for the men who raised the meetinghouse that day. We learn that the men who felled the trees to build the meetinghouse "were directed not only to fell their trees in September and October, but to do so 'in the old of the moon.' Both directives sprang from ancient folk wisdom, the first of which... was related to the effects of cold weather on the curing process, and the second of which... may not have been taken seriously." And we learn how news was spread, and events memorialized: "News of the terrible accident... made its way from Wilton to Philadelphia and points between by all 3 possible modes, or 'cultures,' of communication: by word of mouth, by the relatively more formal and painstaking handwritten letter from New Ipswich, and by print.... The spread of the news, however, was neither the most lasting nor, to the communities involved, the most significant response to the meetinghouse tragedy. In due time, perhaps very soon, someone wrote a ballad."

Clark's wonderful textual re-creation is enhanced by various types of visual aids: photographs of meetinghouses still standing (the Wilton meetinghouse is not) and of existing copies of the ballad (one belongs to UNH's Special Collections), and helpful drawings by the late John W. Hatch of the tools carpenters used, and of what the tragedy might have looked like.

—Anne Downey '95G

At the Breast
Ideologies of Breastfeeding and Motherhood in the Contemporary United States
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Breastfeeding is not, and never has been, a simple, private act between mother and child, as Linda Blum, assistant professor of sociology and women's studies, proves in this multi-layered study. Rather, it is a complex, culturally-coded choice that is determined by race, class and notions of femininity.

Blum deftly shows that questions about breastfeeding are important because, as she writes, they provide "a lens with which to shape our focus on the conflicts shaping and dividing women's lives in these postfeminist times." Her brief historical reading of breastfeeding is suggestive, as it demonstrates the unchanging political nature of women's personal choice. In early America, for example, "maternal breastfeeding . . . became almost an emblem of new democratic ideals, as images of 'nature' were linked with equality, the rejection of decadent, aristocratic 'culture,' and the rising health and wealth of the middle class of the young nation." And in late 20th century America? Blum's well-drawn conclusions about the demands made on postmodern mothers will make you profoundly tired as she demonstrates how "two seemingly contradictory trends have reshaped mothering: the dramatic increase in mothers' wage-earning and the revival of breastfeeding prescriptions. These two trends 'work' through (and on) maternal bodies— bodies which have to get out into the public sphere, to seek autonomy, but also to engage in a most interdependent, private and time-consuming act."

Blum's main focus, though, is on three groups of women: white, middle-class mothers who belong to the La Leche League, a grassroots support organization; and black and white working class mothers. Her interviews with these women are fascinating, and the reader can't help but be grateful for her sensitive reading of a situation so fraught with anxiety. From her conclusion: "Can breastfeeding be in women's interests in the 21st century? I have shown through these chapters that there is no one answer and no position free of danger. To nurse our babies at the breast may offer a way to revalue our bodies and free a public reevaluation of caregiving—or—at the same time, it may represent acquiescence to dominant regimes of self-sacrifice, overwork, and surveillance."

—Anne Downey '95G

Time Machines
Time Travel in Physics, Metaphysics, and Science Fiction
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Noted physicist Kip Thorne has called this book "not only the most complete documentation of time travel in science fiction; it is also the most thorough review of the serious scientific literature on the subject."

Author Paul Nahin, a UNH professor of electrical and computer engineering, is probably the foremost authority on the science and fiction of time travel. But don't let words like complete, serious, and documentation put you off. In addition to scholarly references, the book is also filled with kooky ideas, flights of fantasy and sometimes profound observations.

Take the section "Spacetime as the Fourth Dimension," for example. Early in this century, Albert Einstein's math professor, Hermann Minkowski, gave the world the "block universe," a concept of reality as a four-dimensional entity called "spacetime," in which the past, present and future all exist simultaneously, despite our perception of the passage of time.

Minkowski was hardly the first to present this idea, however. The Greek philosopher Parmenides, writing in the fifth century B.C., described reality similarly, as "complete, immovable, and without end." In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas wrote: "We may fancy that God knows the flight of time... in the way that a person standing on top of a watchtower embraces in a single glance a whole caravan of passing travelers."

"This is the block universe idea, too," Nahin notes, "but while for Parmenides it was metaphysics and for Aquinas it was theology, for Einstein and Minkowski it was science."

For others, it is fertile ground for fantasy. Nahin describes a science fiction story in which "a scientist discovers how to bend his perception of the four dimensions so as to view verticality as duration, and duration as verticality. Thus, while sitting, he is in October, but when he stands up he is in November!" As outlandish as that sounds, Nahin points out that a similar coordinate interchange occurs in some serious theories of time machines.

Nahin considers himself an "agnostic" on whether time travel will ever be possible. In an interview, he said, "Our own understanding about the technical possibilities of the future is limited."

In the meantime, the rest of us can delve into his book and explore a number of possible futures.

—Virginia Stuart '75, '80G