Sarah Orne Jewett, The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896)
In this evocative collection of sketches set in Maine, in and around the fictional coastal town of Dunnet Landing, an unnamed narrator reveals little of herself other than that she is a writer, visiting the town one summer to pursue her work. Her role is to observe, listen to, and report the stories of the people around her, nearly all older people with the turmoil of youth behind them: herbalists, sea captains, fishermen, homemakers…unsophisticated, even poor people who reveal something of their inner strength and richness through the tales they tell.
The incidents portrayed are generally not outwardly dramatic, but celebrate endurance, tenacity, faithfulness — the qualities that make life possible in a land not always friendly to human habitation. A seaman recalls an unearthly vision that has haunted him all his life; a beloved elder of the community courageously holds to the island life she has known for so long; a courtship of many years finally ends in fulfillment. So a quietly poignant picture of human striving and suffering is built up, and the dignity of hard work and simple living is upheld.
With its episodic nature and lack of a unified plot, I would hesitate to call this work a “novel” or even a novella, but that’s not to say it isn’t artfully constructed. The stories, linked by narrator, recurring characters, place, and voice, combine to make us feel we have visited a real place and met its people, that we too have experienced the beauty and bleakness of the “country of the pointed firs.” I highly recommend it for anyone who wishes to journey there in spirit.
Which edition you choose to read matters. The first 19 chapters were originally published in installments in the Atlantic Monthly, and then in book form with two additional chapters in 1896. Jewett also wrote four other stories set in Dunnet Landing before she died in 1909. Although she never authorized their inclusion, editors sometimes inserted these awkwardly into later editions, upsetting its artistic wholeness. Readers of the earlier work will certainly want to read the additional stories, which revisit some of the characters and places we have grown to know and love thereby, but should seek out a version that puts them in their proper place as a separate section, like the Modern Library edition that I read. The illuminating biographical note (which includes the information on publication history I’ve summarized here) is another good reason to choose this edition.
Though this was my first book by Sarah Orne Jewett, it won’t be my last. I’ll be seeking out more writing by this accomplished New England author, and I hope to visit her house in South Berwick as well. If you’ve read this or any other of Jewett’s books, I hope you’ll share your thoughts.
Reading New England Challenge: Maine
Back to the Classics Challenge: A Book of Short Stories