The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett

1896. Signet Classics. Paperback. 232 pages.

From: the public library

For the challenge: Read 19 Books Older Than Myself

In a nutshell:

An unnamed narrator spends a summer in a small Maine fishing village.  She makes fast friends with her down-to-earth landlady, Mrs. Todd, and also is allowed into the lives of various other village and island residents, many of them elderly and vividly recalling the mighty shipping days of the Maine coast.

Review:

This is my second time reading Jewett’s classic The Country of the Pointed Firs, but I hardly remember the first read, as I was a teenager at the time.  I don’t think I fully appreciated it then, being young and unaccustomed to ‘slower’ reads’ but I was completely bewitched this time.

Thomas of the blog My Porch recently posted the question, Is there such a thing as an American cozy? In his personal reading experience, the British authors seemed to have the corner on cozy reads.  My immediate thought, as I was in the midst of my re-read, was this book.

The Country of the Pointed Firs is steeped with cozy.  Much of the book consists of the author visiting folks and listening to their stories.  From an old sea captain recalling eerie Arctic visions to a daft but adorable elderly woman who regards Queen Victoria as her ‘twin’, the human landscape is warmly drawn by Jewett.  And yet also we get a firm sense of the natural landscape too: fishing streams in summer, the abandoned island home of a hermit, a country road.  This is a book that will languidly draw out the reader’s own memories of contentment.

Of course, my own Maine childhood can’t help but add a connection to the book.  I was born on Mount Desert Island, within walking distance of a lighthouse.  My family later moved inland, but my affinity was always to be for the coast.  So I understood the narrator’s attachment and later longing for Dunnet Landing.

The Country of the Pointed Firs reminded me quite a bit of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, which I read earlier this year.  Both books feature an unnamed young-ish female narrator who visits the (mostly) elderly residents of a small village.  In both books, the focus is not on the narrator, but is warmly focused on her companions.

My copy of The Country of the Pointed Firs featured additional stories about Dunnet Landing, and they were just as good as the novella, so don’t miss out on reading them!

I really could quote from anywhere, but here’s just a couple of samples:

“Oh, ain’t it beautiful!” said Mrs. Blackett, with all the delight of a
girl. She stood up in the high wagon to see everything, and when she sat down again she took fast hold of my hand.

“Hadn’t you better urge the horse a little, Almiry?” she asked. “He’s had it easy as we came along, and he can rest when we get there. The others are some little ways ahead, and I don’t want to lose a minute.”

We watched the boats drop their sails one by one in the cove as we drove along the high land. The old Bowden house stood, low-storied and broad-roofed, in its green fields as if it were a motherly brown hen waiting for the flock that came straying toward it from every direction.  The first Bowden settler had made his home there, and it was still the Bowden farm; five generations of sailors and farmers and soldiers had been its children. And presently Mrs. Blackett showed me the stone-walled burying-ground that stood like a little fort on a knoll overlooking the bay, but, as she said, there were plenty of scattered Bowdens who were not laid there,–some lost at sea, and some out West, and some who died in the war; most of the home graves were those of women.

At first he had seemed to be one of those evasive and uncomfortable persons who are so suspicious of you that they make you almost suspicious of yourself. Mr. Elijah Tilley appeared to regard a stranger with scornful indifference. You might see him standing on the pebble beach or in a fish-house doorway, but when you came nearer he was gone. He was one of
the small company of elderly, gaunt-shaped great fisherman whom I used to like to see leading up a deep-laden boat by the head, as if it were a horse, from the water’s edge to the steep slope of the pebble beach.  There were four of these large old men at the Landing, who were the survivors of an earlier and more vigorous generation. There was an alliance and understanding between them, so close that it was apparently speechless.

Others’ reviews:

Book Snob – “This book tells of a style of life, a gentle, community based existence, that is no longer the norm, but the good heartedness of the characters and the beautiful scenery are still there, for us all to have and enjoy, and that is what makes this book so timeless and charming.”

Incurable Logophilia“The Country of the Pointed Firs has no central event or interlaced plot, but each chapter is linked to the rest through its tone and the consistency of the narrator. There is also a harmony in the collage aspect of the book; each chapter fits to the rest like a separate piece of a jigsaw puzzle.”

Short Story Reader – “And yet, by the sheer beauty of her language, Jewett moves us forward, compelling us to read lazily on. And we do. And when summer comes to an end and fall makes its full claim on the senses and the visitor must go away, we too are sad. It’s like we’re leaving a town we’ve spent the summer in.”

StephanieVandrickReads – “In some ways this book reminds me of the English writer Elizabeth Gaskell’s “Cranford” . . . Both novels could be labeled “gentle,” but that adjective should not be allowed to minimize the way that both – in their understated ways – include some dramatic events and compelling characters, and should not allow us to dismiss the emotions and relationships of those characters.”  [My note: So I wasn’t the only one to see the similarity!]

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett

  1. I could have used this book last night. It would have been perfect. I read this one years ago, but like you I need to revisit it.

  2. Jennifer Benson

    Oooooo I re-read that last year and totally appreciated it more the second time. Mrs. Roseboom gave me a copy when I graduated from high school.

  3. Jason

    I just finished O Pioneers! tonight, and I noticed the book was dedicated to Sarah Orne Jewett, who was a mentor to Willa Cather. I guess I should put this book on my to-read list, too.

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