Book review: “The Country of the Pointed Firs”

As the summer slowly draws to a close, I return to the book I love to re-read this time of year. Sarah Orne Jewett’s 1896 novella The Country of the Pointed Firs is a gentle and relaxing, almost meditative account of an idyllic summer spent in a small fishing village on the coast of Maine. 

Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909)

The narrator is a woman writer from Boston who leaves the busy city and travels to the (fictional) small town of Dunnet Landing. There she rents a room from a local apothecary, Mrs Todd, hoping to be able to finish writing her latest book in the peace and quiet of the slow summer months. However, things do not exactly go according to plan: Mrs Todd’s home proves to be a busy place, with people coming and going all the time. And the village itself is full of distractions as the locals – mostly elderly – cannot wait to share their stories with this friendly and endlessly patient visitor.

There is pride to the people she meets, but also a pervasive sense of loneliness endured with stoic dignity. For instance, this is how Mrs Todd is described, but the same could easily apply to practically everyone else our narrator gets acquainted with:

There was something lonely and solitary about her great determined shape. She might have been Antigone alone on the Theban plain. It is not often given in a noisy world to come to the places of great grief and silence. An absolute, archaic grief possessed this countrywoman; she seemed like a renewal of some historic soul, with her sorrow and the remoteness of a daily life busied with rustic simplicities and the scents of primeval herbs.

The personal stories she becomes privy to, coupled with diverse observations on the life in Dunnet Landing and the nearby islands, is what The Country of the Pointed Firs mainly consists of. There is barely a plot as such and, indeed, there has been some debate over whether this is an actual novella or a series of loosely connected notes and reminiscences. Still, there is a steady progression of the narrative and there are consistent themes that hold the book together, such as that of the growing friendship between the narrator and Mrs Todd, or the overarching themes of solitude and the decline of the once prosperous fishing villages along the coast of New England.

William Trost Richards (1833-1905), Coast of Maine

What I like best about The Country of the Pointed Firs is the tone. In spite of the background filled with loss and loneliness, the book is written with a deep sense of wistfulness and nostalgia that has a very pleasant, calming effect. Although the book is a novella, as a whole it feels like a lyrical poem – a subtle and touching ode to small towns and rustic, hardy folks everywhere. This one just happens to be written in prose and dedicated to Sarah Orne Jewett’s own homeland – the southern coast of Maine that she knew well and loved dearly, written in the best tradition of American literary regionalism.

You will enjoy this book even if you have no connection to New England whatsoever. Reading it feels like taking a leisurely stroll by the ocean in that glorious end-of-summer sunshine, soaking up the sights, scents and sounds, ruminating casually on the vagaries of life.


LINKS

Sarah Orne Jewett board on the Grammaticus Pinterest profile

Sarah Orne Jewett House

The Country of the Pointed Firs – free ebook (downloadable in different formats)

The Sarah Orne Jewett Text Project

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