Much like its characters, who seem to inhabit the limbo between past and present, life and death, The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896) lies somewhere between an episodic novella and a series of short stories linked by voice, place, characters, and, most strongly, by a nostalgic, almost elegiac atmosphere.
The story is set in Dunnet Landing, a fictional fishing village in Maine, where the narrator, an unnamed woman writer, is spending her summer. Intent on dedicating her time to an undisclosed writing project, the narrator boards with Mrs. Almira Todd, a widow in her late sixties who works as an herbalist. If initially our writer had thought that, in this village, she would be able to escape the distractions of life in the city, she soon learns that, underneath its quiet ways, Dunnet Landing is also pulsing with a life of its own.
As it turns out, Mrs. Todd is a central figure in the village: whether through storytelling, like the guard-keeper of the town’s tales, or through her presence, as an active visitor and friend, Mrs. Todd seems to be the one who makes the community come alive – at least, in the eyes of the narrator. In the course of the summer, she will introduce our writer to the resilient, weather-beaten inhabitants of Dunnet Landing, as well as to its way of life, whose understated richness our narrator will gradually come to treasure.
The villagers are, for the most part, elderly widows and widowers, recluse seamen and hermits – insular people who, very much like the sketches that form this novella, or the islands that serve as its background, are connected and sustained by shared tales, landscape, memory, idiom, and, more broadly, by their shared history.
With the changes brought about by industrialization and the decline of the shipping industry, Dunnet Landing, a once-flourishing seafaring place, is on its way to becoming a ghost town: the villagers are aging and dying, and seem to live in the past, through a constant habit of storytelling that gives them a sense of shared identity; meanwhile, the young people are moving elsewhere, looking for work.
The remaining residents are kept together by shared memories made alive by a regular series of repeated habits and rituals that almost turn these common memories into shared myths: “(W)e might have been a company of ancient Greeks going to celebrate a victory, or to worship the god of harvests, in the grove above. It was strangely moving to see this and to make part of it. The sky, the sea, have watched poor humanity at its rites so long; we were no more a New England family celebrating its own existence and simple progress; we carried the tokens and inheritance of all such households from which this had descended, and were only the latest of our line. We possessed the instincts of a far, forgotten childhood; I found myself thinking that we ought to be carrying green branches and singing as we went.”
Throughout the book, there is a strong sense of nostalgia for a way of life that is about to die: almost as if the narrator were telling us about a place that no longer exists but in her own mind; almost like a dream, or the frail memory of a dream just before it disappears.
“I found the path; it was touching to discover that this lonely spot was not without its pilgrims. Later generations will know less and less of Joanna herself, but there are paths trodden to the shrines of solitude the world over,—the world cannot forget them, try as it may; the feet of the young find them out because of curiosity and dim foreboding; while the old bring hearts full of remembrance. This plain anchorite had been one of those whom sorrow made too lonely to brave the sight of men, too timid to front the simple world she knew, yet valiant enough to live alone with her poor insistent human nature and the calms and passions of the sea and sky.” – Sarah Orne Jewett, The Country of Pointed Firs
As I came away on the little coastwise steamer, there was an old sea running which made the surf leap high on all the rocky shores. I stood on deck, looking back, and watched the busy gulls agree and turn, and sway together down the long slopes of air, then separate hastily and plunge into the waves. The tide was setting in, and plenty of small fish were coming with it, unconscious of the silver flashing of the great birds overhead and the quickness of their fierce beaks. The sea was full of life and spirit, the tops of the waves flew back as if they were winged like the gulls themselves, and like them had the freedom of the wind. – Sarah Orne Jewett, The Country of Pointed Firs
Captain Littlepage was sitting behind his closed window as I passed by, watching for someone who never came. I tried to speak to him, but he did not see me. There was a patient look on the old man’s face, as if the world were a great mistake and he had nobody with whom to speak his own language or find companionship. – Sarah Orne Jewett, The Country of Pointed Firs
About the book
- Modern Library, 2000, 247 p. Goodreads
- Broadview Press, 2009, 294 p. Goodreads
- First published in 1896
- My rating: 4 stars
- I read this book for the Back to the Classics project (prompt 9: Classic From the Americas), my Century of Books project, my ‘new-to-me authors for my 19th-century Women Writers Project‘, and my Classics Club list.