“There was something about the coast town of Dunnet which made it seem more attractive than the other maritime villages of eastern Maine. Perhaps it was the simple fact of acquaintance with that neighborhood which made it so attaching, and gave such interest to the rocky shore and dark woods, and the few houses which seemed to be securely wedged and tree-nailed in among the ledges of the Landing. These houses made the most of their seaward view, and there was a gayety and determined floweriness in their bits of garden ground; the small-paned high windows in the peaks of their steep gables were like knowing eyes that watched the harbor and the far sea-line beyond, or looked northward all along the shore and its background of spruces and balsam firs.” (1)
This excerpt introduces the very short first chapter of Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs, which was hailed by none other than Willa Cather as one of the three greatest American novels. It is the story of a single summer spent with this Maine town and its inhabitants. The novel has been described as a series of sketches, unrelated, but I think that description fails to do it justice. Chapters are short, yes, but they flow in sequence and are often the continuation of a conversation or experience begun in the chapter before. The Country of the Pointed Firs makes up a cohesive story. Perhaps what bothered that reviewer (I can’t remember where I read this particular description) was the lack of plot. There is little action. Instead, it is a series of stories – stories about the narrator’s small experiences; stories told to her by longtime inhabitants of this coastal town. This book is not exciting and action-packed, nor is it deep and psychological. Instead, it simply tells what is. I now feel as if I know this town (circa 1896) and its people.
There are a few major characters, all of whom were presented as realistic people, with flaws and charms, troubles and desires. And they are all getting old, and have entire lifetimes of experiences to remember and relate. As the local herbalist, Mrs. Almiry Todd, from whom the narrator rents a room, makes salves, tonics, cough drops, and other mixtures and, sometimes, spells and enchantments. Her mother, Mrs. Blackett, lives hospitably on a small island with only her shy grown son William for company. Captain Littlepage, a former ship captain, finds himself unable live in the present, too preoccupied is he in looking back at the ghostly tales he heard while on the sea. Joanna Todd, Mrs. Todd’s cousin by marriage, was abandoned by her fiancé and spent the rest of her days living on a lonely island. An old widower, Elijah Tilley, came to truly appreciate his wife after she died. Their stories are all compelling and both hopeful and sad.
An even clearer picture emerges of the town as a whole. The people who live here on the remote coast of Maine have an intense sense of community coupled with the stereotypical New Englander’s independence, and the novel underscores parallels between the sea and those who live alongside it. There are some contradictions - “As I looked up and down the tables there was a good cheer, a grave soberness that shone with pleasure, a humble dignity of bearing.” (71) They are stoic (“I done it all myself” (26)), resolute, and fiercely stubborn (“On a larger island, farther out to sea, my entertaining companion showed me with glee the small houses of two farmers who shared the island between them, and declared that for three generations the people had not spoken to each other even in times of sickness or death or birth. “When the news came that the war was over, one of ‘em knew it a week, and never stepped across the wall to tell the other,”” (22)). But they are also neighborly and patient (“At sea there is nothing to be seen close by, and this has its counterpart in a sailor’s character, in the large and brave and patient traits that are developed, the hopeful pleasantness that one loves so in a seafarer.” 32). These are people who make sure to keep their mostly-unused parlors properly furnished, for the rare occasions when they receive visitors. These are folks who have learned to live their lives by the rhythms of nature and in according to the special occasions their community celebrates (the novel details two: a funeral and a large family reunion).
This Dover thrift edition reminded me strongly of the the similar edition of Ethan Frome, which I read for a high school English class. Like that of Edith Wharton’s novel, the unnamed narrator of The Country of the Pointed Firs functions as an observer, not influencing actions of others but merely reporting on them, and largely reporting not even on actions but on the stories they tell. She – I’m fairly certain the narrator is a woman, though the gender remained ambiguous for some time – is almost like a ghost herself, echoing those in Captain Littlepage’s story. If I were to read this novel again, I would focus more on the narrator herself, now that I am more familiar with the people and personality of Dunnet. Who is she? Why is she visiting, and how many times has she been here before? What do her reactions to the stories she’s told tell readers about her own life and experiences?
This was a short but somewhat slow-moving novel. The prose isn’t overly dense, but it also takes a long time to explain any scene. It was a lovely description of New England around the turn of the 20th century, and definitely embodies this aspect of the American spirit. I’d recommend it, particularly if you’re looking for a book to take on vacation to a northern seacoast!