Title: The Country of the Pointed Firs
Author: Sarah Orne Jewett
Publisher: A Public Domain Book
Device: Kindle Fire
For a plot summary
When one really knows a village like this and its surroundings, it is like becoming acquainted with a single person. The process of falling in love at first sight is as final as it is swift…but the growth of true friendship may be a lifelong affair. [i]
Most biographical descriptions of Sarah Orne Jewett include the fact that as the daughter of a doctor, she accompanied him on rounds throughout their small rural town in Maine and grew close to the townspeople, the farmers and fishermen and developed an eye for the details of their behavior and the rhythm of their daily lives. It is apparent throughout this small book of “quietly powerful rhythms” (Ursula K. LeGuin), Jewett’s acquaintance with the variety of types who make up the small fictional fishing village of Dunnet Landing benefited from these encounters.
The Country of the Pointed Firs is not really a novel, but more a series of sketches tied together by an unnamed narrator, a writer, stopping for the summer at the home Almira Todd. It is with Todd, an herbalist with a well-stocked garden in the ancient manner of healers, that much of the action centers.
There were some strange and pungent odors that roused a dim sense and remembrance of something in the forgotten past. Some of these might once have belonged to sacred and mystic rites, [but now] They were dispensed to suffering neighbors, who usually came at night as if by stealth, bringing their own ancient-looking vials to be filled.[ii]
Fisher folk are the bulk of Todd’s neighbors. They know the weather, the tides, how to build and repair boats and how to read the water. They have lived long and see the world around them changing. They have been jilted at the altar and take on penance on an isolated island, they have lost the great love of their life, they stop everything for a neighbor’s disaster and they live for the next family reunion
One of the changes is spoken by Captain Littlepage, who spends time pondering the past as he sits and watches the shore from his home. He is disconcerted at the fact that men don’t put out to sea for the adventure and mind expansion as they once did. The town is “full of loafers,” he says…“who once would have followed the sea, every lazy soul of ‘em.” [iii]
“…that a community narrows down and grows dreadful ignorant when it is shut up to its own affairs, and gets no knowledge of the outside world except from a cheap, unprincipled newspaper…There’s no large-minded way of thinking now: the worst have got to be best and rule everything; we’re all turned upside down and going back year by year.”[iv]
Another character who features strongly throughout the books is one we never meet. Although, she has been dead for 22 years, she is often on the mind of Mrs. Todd and others of the town. “Poor” Joanna was to be married, but a month before the wedding her suitor fell in love with another woman and up and moved away. Understandably upset she turned her wrath on God to such an extent that in her own mind she became unforgivable and felt she must remove herself from society. Although the tiny island she moved to was visible from the mainland, she made it clear her friends must leave her alone, which they reluctantly did. Having heard this story, the narrator feels compelled to visit the island.
Later generations will know less and less of Joanna herself, but there are a paths trodden to the shrines of solitude the world over, –the world cannot forget them…the feet of the young find them out because of curiosity and dim foreboding; while the old bring hearts full of remembrance…In the life of each of us…there is a place remote and islanded, and given to endless regret or secret happiness; we are each the uncompanioned hermit and recluse of an hour or a day; we understand our fellows of the cell to whatever age of history they may belong. [v]
And then there is the Bowden family reunion that brings in throngs of people for food gossip and to connect with far flung family. Mrs. Todd and her old mother invite the narrator along, who observes:
….when at long intervals, the altars to patriotism, to friendship, to the ties of kindred, are reared in our familiar fields, then the fires glow, the flames come up as if from the inexhaustible burning heart of the earth…. Each heart is warm and every face shines with the ancient light. Such a day as this has transfiguring powers…but it is the old who really value such opportunities; as for the young, it is the habit of every day to meet their comrades—the time of separation has not come. To see the joy with which these elder kinsfolk and acquaintances had looked in one another’s faces, and the lingering touch of their friendly hands… easily makes friends of those who have been cold-hearted, and gives to those who are dumb their chance to speak, and lends some beauty to the plainest face.[vi]
This is my first Sarah Orne Jewett, a work Henry James called, a “beautiful little quantum of achievement.” I was drawn into this book through the details of a way of life that for the most part no longer exists. It found me longing to know more, not only of the characters, but of the author herself.