I read The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett for the 23rd Classics Club Spin. Today, June 1st, is the date by which participants were to have finished their spin book.
This book has been on my To Be Read List for years — decades actually — and I’m so happy to have finally read it. It can be bit intimidating to finally crack open a classic that’s been on your list for so long. I was thrilled to find myself glued to the this story from page one through to the end. I didn’t want it to end, but when it did, I closed the book with a satisfied sigh.
The Country of the Pointed Firs is considered by many to be Jewett’s masterpiece. It was first serialized in 1896. The Atlantic ran it in four parts in January, March, July, and September, and then it was published in book form in November of that year.
The story in a nutshell is this: An unnamed narrator who made a brief visit to Dunnet, Maine a few years before, returns to spend the whole summer in this small, sea-side village. She’s looking for solitude in which to write and secures a room in the home of Mrs. Todd, the local herbalist who takes in boarders.
Instead of finding solitude in her host’s home, she finds chatter, chores, and visitors disturbing her peace and so rents the unused one room schoolhouse as her daytime office. The school sits on a hilltop overlooking the town and she finds herself observing the comings and goings of the townsfolk. She realizes that she’s now isolated herself from the people she’s becoming attached to and starts to get more involved in Mrs. Todd’s life as well as in the lives of some of the other villagers. Perhaps ‘involved’ is too strong a word. She definitely observes them and spends time with them and as a reader you can’t help but start to feel attached to these characters.
The novel is not plot driven. It is more a series of vignettes that are like snapshots of life in the village, as well as retellings of some legends and stories that you feel have been lovingly retold hundreds of time. This style reminded me of some of Willa Cather’s novels, such as My Antonia or Shadows on the Rock, both of which look at a character or characters and their community through vignettes rather than an unfolding or building plot.
One direct similarity between The Country of the Pointed Firs and Shadows on the Rock is that both have a young woman character who chooses to live a life of solitude in self-isolation away from society. In Jewett’s story it’s the character of Joanna Todd, a young woman who was “crossed in love” who chooses to live on an island by herself for the rest of her life. In Cather’s story it’s a young woman from a wealthy family who chooses to live isolated in her bedroom and eventually as an actual anchorite. Did Jewett and Cather ever discuss the tradition of anchorites or hermits? Oh to be a fly on the wall during one of their conversations! Cather was certainly very familiar with Jewett’s work.
If you want to do some armchair travel this summer to coastal Maine, this is a great book to read. You can practically feel the ocean breeze, hear the seagulls, and see the boats as they lift and dip in the waves.
My “in real life” book club met on Friday via Zoom, as groups do these days, and The Country of the Pointed Firs was chosen as our June read, so I’ll be revising this story in a couple weeks. I mentioned above that the novel isn’t plot driven, yet while reading it I couldn’t wait to find out what would happen next. This wasn’t out of a sense of suspense, but rather because I was so enjoying this world and the characters. I’m looking forward to reading it again for the sheer enjoyment of visiting with these characters and observing them even more closely along with the narrator.
I’ve also recently purchased a biography on Jewett by Paula Blanchard called, Sarah Orne Jewett: Her World and Her Work, which I hope to dip into this summer.