Attitudes on life play out in book

THE MANSION OF HAPPINESS: A History of Life and Death. By Jill Lepore. Knopf. 282 pages. $27.95.

Jill Lepore, a staff writer for The New Yorker, begins “The Mansion of Happiness” by comparing two board games, both called “The Game of Life.”

The first was designed by Milton Bradley in 1860 to provide children not only with a form of entertainment, but also an introduction to “the great principles of virtue and vice.”

A century later, in the 1960s version, “players fill teensy plastic station wagons with even teensier pink and blue plastic Mommies and Daddies, spin the Wheel of Fate, and ride along the Highway of Life, earning money, buying furniture, having pink and blue plastic babies, and retiring, if they’re lucky, at Millionaire Acres.”

By comparing the games, and in other observations, Lepore demonstrates that as medical treatments improved and the average American life span increased, people shifted from viewing life as cyclical to life as linear.

With this shift came a shift in values. Americans became more focused on earning money and making progress than on morality and the hope of an afterlife.

What follows is a well-researched, articulate and at times funny look at how American attitudes toward life and death have changed since the 19th century.

Lepore assembles vignettes about the first children’s rooms in public libraries, the popularity of the breast pump, the advent of the eugenics movement, and debates over birth control, expertly sewing them into a cohesive argument and entertaining read.

Reviewer Olivia Williams, a guide at Fort Sumter National Monument