Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

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.


14 Responses to “Sarah Orne Jewett – The Country of the Pointed Firs”

  1. Charlotte

    Sounds like a great book to forget sleep deprivation for a while!
    The two characters you describe more specifically, Captain Littlepage and Joanna, appear to have quite a whimsical back story… Is it the case, or is the book more on the “New England austere” side of things?

  2. Stefanie

    Isn’t t his a marvelous book? It made me want to live in that little town. And the landlady and her mother were so delightful. I loved the big family gathering they went to.

  3. litlove

    I have this on my shelf and have been looking forward to it. You describe it beautifully and it sounds serene and charming – perfect for a disturbed night!

  4. verbivore

    Charlotte – I was actually really surprised at the sweet eccentricity of most of the characters. The austere New England type was shown only as a facade, with a gentle soul hiding beneath.

    Stefanie – I loved that part as well and also when the narrator meets the landlady’s brother for the first time. He was a great character.

    Litlove – Serene and charming is quite right. No frantic page turning required, but an enjoyable story all the same.

    Lilian – It was, and since it was short I enjoyed reading it aloud to Mademoiselle Petitvore!

  5. nicole

    I’ve been wanting to read Sarah Orne Jewett since she was (somewhat disparagingly) mentioned as one of the regional NE writers Edith Wharton was trying to outdo with Ethan Frome. Would you say she was, er, second-rate-ish? I don’t know, I have a general love of regional stuff that makes me pretty forgiving, so I don’t really care, but I’m curious.

  6. ds

    I read this so long ago…you remind me I should pick it up again. Beautiful review. Hope your nights are beginning to be a bit less sleepless!

  7. Thomas

    I need to re-read this one. When I read it back in 2001, I knew I wasn’t giving it the attention it deserved. Your post has convinced me I need to go back and read it again.

  8. verbivore

    Nicole – That is a good question. Because this book didn’t really have a “story” of its own (instead it had small themes that bounced in and out each sketch), it’s hard to compare with Wharton who has such strong stories. It’s a good read, but also because it’s so short. A huge long tome of the same style would probably become boring.

    ds – a good book to reread when in need of beautiful scenery. And yes, the nights are slowly getting a bit less sleepless..thank good ness!

    Thomas – I’d love to know your thoughts on a reread. I have a suspicion this particular book could stand quite a few rereads…to see more each time.

  9. Dorothy W.

    I really want to get to this one! It sounds beautiful, and I’d love to read more about Maine, especially now that I’ve spent a bit of time there. Your description reminds of Gaskell’s Cranford a bit, which is another book that captures a place rather than tells a story.

  10. zhiv

    I am so excited that you read this book! What a great post. It’s funny how peaceful and serene and, dare I say, maternal your writing and appreciation of Jewett’s small masterpiece is here. I read this book in 07 before going to Maine on a college tour with my daughter and it was as perfect and measured, in its own way, as a Jane Austen novel. The thing I find striking, after further study of Jewett (and her companion, Annie Fields), is how modern the book is in its lack of plot, not to mention the strong ecofeminism at work. There’s a strong, direct path from Firs to Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. The White Heron, a great short story, is a nice quick follow-up. I read Firs before starting my blog and never wrote about it, but I liked A Country Doctor. Not as good, but interesting in all sorts of ways, if you like Jewett. Reading other stuff makes you appreciate just how good Firs is.

  11. nicole

    Weird coincidence I must share with someone: I just mooched this book, and the captcha word display was “wharton”!

  12. verbivore

    Dorothy – I have Cranford on my shelf, so I’^ll check it out. Thanks for the suggestion!

    Zhiv – Your comment about the book’s modernism really struck me. I can see the trajectory toward To the Lighthouse, now that you’ve pointed it out. It’s a shame that many people dismiss Jewett as “light” – I think there is alot going on beneath the surface of her serene writing.

    Nicole – how funny!

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