Reading New England: The Country of the Pointed Firs

Posted March 11, 2016 by Lory in reviews / 14 Comments

Sarah Orne Jewett, The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896)

PointedFirsIn 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

Reading New England: The Country of the Pointed FirsThe Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories by Sarah Orne Jewett
Published by Modern Library in 1995 (originally 1896-1910)
Format: eBook from Library

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14 responses to “Reading New England: The Country of the Pointed Firs

  1. Having spent much of my childhood in New England, and a number of vacations in Maine, I am certain I would recognize that Down East spirit in these stories. And I can think of people in my life for whom this would make a lovely present.

    • I’ve only been to Maine once, but it was so beautiful. I’m sure this book would be much appreciated by someone who knows the place well.

    • It’s a good one, I think. I’ve also just checked out the Library of America edition that includes more of Jewett’s work, but not the biographical note.

  2. Wow. This sounds interesting…almost like a collection of non-fiction essays written about one town, even though it’s fiction. I’m familiar with Jewett’s name, but I’ve never read any of her writing. Another author to add to my infinitely long list! 🙂

    • I wouldn’t call them essays, they are definitely narratives — usually the characters come into connection with the writer/narrator and she reports the stories they tell her. It had been on my list for a really long time and I’m glad I finally got to it!

  3. This sounds like a really nice collection of stories about ordinary people, which is something I can really enjoy if I’m the right mood. I find realistic, down-to-earth stories like this can make good comfort reads 🙂

    • They reminded me somehow of the Anne of Green Gables books, which are total comfort reading for me.

  4. I just borrowed this one from the library with great hopes of being able to read it. I’m glad to have read your excellent review. Now that I know it’s worthwhile, I’ll put it at the top of the pile!

    • Very worthwhile indeed, and I do want to read some of her other novels: Deephaven and A Country Doctor.

  5. Yes, the edition I read several years ago put the additional four stories at the end – and they are worth reading, but should be separate from the rest. I’m so glad you enjoyed this book – it has such a lovely atmosphere.

  6. New England, especially Main is so inspirational for so many writers and authors. Including me. My WIP is set in Salem, MA. Glad you enjoy this book Lori!