Having no experience whatsoever with Sarah Orne Jewett I took her book off the shelf with only mild interest. I have a Dover Thrift edition, which weighs nearly nothing and could be easily mistaken for a bound short story. The evening I took the book down, I needed something I could move easily through from beginning to end and which would hold my interest through a predictably sleep-interrupted night. So it was quite fun to start reading and then find myself swept up in Jewett’s cheerful and loving descriptions of the New England she held close to her heart.
The Country of the Pointed Firs is not so much a novel as it is a series of portraits assembled into a detailed collage of coastal Maine at the dawn of the twentieth century – a rugged landscape, a reliance on fishing and the lobster harvest, the deep quiet of a typical Maine personality. I believe it was Jewett’s goal to record the way of life in this area as well as pay a sort of tribute to it. And she does this well, introducing the reader to a series of eccentric characters and describing the landscape with great precision.
The narrator is a writer who has come out to the area on retreat, spending her days either helping her landlady gather herbs or working diligently in an old school house a bit outside of the town. It is difficult not to imagine Jewett as the narrator, especially since the narrator keeps her own personality and internal thoughts so distant from the actual people she is describing. She reflects on them and interacts with them, although not to create a story between herself and them but, rather, to get at the heart of their own story, whatever that may be.
Each little chapter is a portrait of one of the townspeople or a related event and includes such gems as Captain Littlepage’s story of encountering a sort of limbo town where dead souls wait during one of his sea voyages to the Arctic, or a young woman named Joanna who, thwarted in love, rows out to a tiny island off the main coast to live out the rest of her days alone. Most of the sketches involve the narrator’s landlady or the landlady’s mother – two quaintly bizarre women – in some capacity, either introducing the narrator to another individual or providing a suitable event for description.
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. The overall effect is pleasant and the book creates a vivid image of a tiny corner of the United States at a particular time in its history.