Reading New England: The Country of the Pointed Firs

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: Maine

Reading New England

State Post Linkup
Genre Post Linkup

For my second state in the Reading New England Challenge, I’ve chosen to go to Maine, the largest and northernmost of the New England states. As you may remember from American history class, Maine was claimed by Massachusetts in Colonial days; it became an independent state only in 1820 as part of the notorious “Missouri compromise,” by which Missouri was allowed to become a slave state if Maine became a free state, thus keeping the balance in the senate.

Acadia National Park, By Plh1234us [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
So it should come as no surprise that peaceful as the Maine woods and mountains may appear, there lurk everywhere both human and natural conflicts, which form a rich ground for literature. Perhaps the most famous Maine author writing today is Stephen King, who has set several of his wildly popular horror novels in his home state, including his debut novel Carrie. For some equally compelling drama without the supernatural touch you might choose Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, Empire Falls by Richard Russo, or Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline.

Nature and the wilderness form a strong presence in Maine fiction and nonfiction: a couple of titles that have caught my eye are Henry Beston’s Northern Farm and Trevor Corson’s The Secret Life of Lobsters. And there’s an especially rich vein of children’s books to be found here, with classics like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Calico Bush, and The Sign of the Beaver succeeded in recent years by intriguing new titles like Small as an Elephant and The Water Castle.

Sarah Orne Jewett in the doorway of her house in South Berwick, via Wikimedia

As well as sampling many of these topics and authors (except Stephen King — I don’t like scary books), I’ve already read and am planning to post about Sarah Orne Jewett’s novella The Country of the Pointed Firs, a true American classic and my introduction to a wonderful new-to-me author. Jewett’s house in South Berwick is open to visitors, and I would love to make a trip there once the weather warms up — I’ll be sure to share it if I do. Watch also for a feature on independent Maine publisher Tilbury House, which has some lovely books on offer.

Do you have favorite Maine books or authors to recommend? What are you planning to read this month (from this or any other state)?