Thursday, November 14, 2019

The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett

A pleasant summer in Maine
Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909) lived her whole life in Maine and carved out a successful career writing regional realist fiction about her home state. One might think of Jewett as the Willa Cather of Maine, and in fact Cather cited Jewett’s works as having a significant influence on her own writing. The Country of the Pointed Firs, published in 1896, is Jewett’s best known work. This novel is narrated by an unnamed female writer from Boston who arrives at the seaside village of Dunnet Landing to spend the summer. She takes up residence in the home of Mrs. Almira Todd, a widow who gathers and dispenses medicinal herbs for a living. While the narrator finds her lodgings congenial, she requires an adequate quiet space to work on her writings, so she rents out the local schoolhouse to use as her office. Over the course of the next few months, she becomes acquainted with the residents of Dunnet Landing and its environs, listens to the stories of their lives, and is invited into the slow-paced but warm-hearted lifestyle of this picturesque village and its surrounding islands.

To be honest, not a whole lot happens in The Country of the Pointed Firs. An old sea captain relates a story of a shipwreck. The narrator takes a boat trip to visit her landlord’s mother on a neighboring island. Ladies sit around the kitchen table drinking tea and discussing the history and lore of the town. What little action might be said to take place in the story is provided mostly by secondary narrators telling tales of the region’s past, some of which are quite moving. Because the plot is so bare-boned, the book is highly descriptive, but Jewett’s descriptions aren’t just pointless or gratuitous embellishments intended to showcase the author’s pretty prose. She vividly recreates the atmosphere of a Maine village and imparts to the reader a profound sense of place. Dunnet Landing is the kind of town where you can tell by the smoke coming from your neighbors’ chimneys whether or not they are frying up donuts, and if they see you passing by they just might come out and offer you some. Orne guides the reader on a pleasure trip, not a whirlwind tour, of the area. This book will not have you on the edge of your seat, but rather nestled comfortably in an Adirondack chair, as on a relaxing vacation. Some days there’s nothing to do, and you’re just content to sit and listen to the waves or stroll among the wildflowers.

Though Jewett certainly gives fair due to the Maine scenery, this book is not a work of nature writing. It is not the natural environment but the culture and customs of the inhabitants that are the author’s main concern. The characters are fully fleshed out and indicative of the environment without succumbing to regional or occupational stereotypes. Jewett achieves this primarily by revealing the characters’ personalities through their speech. She does a great job of capturing the idiosyncratic language of the region. With the exception of a few dropped consonants, this is not accomplished through the phonetic transcription of accents but rather through the use of unique expressions, idioms, and figures of speech. These Northeasterners describe an island, a boat, or a neighbor with words an Iowan or a Californian wouldn’t even think of. Through this crafty use of language, Jewett recreates the mentality of Dunnet Landing and its inhabitants’ values and dreams.

The Country of the Pointed Firs is a fine work of American realism that enchants the reader with the sights, sounds, and smells of rural maritime New England. It may be as close as one can come to spending a summer in Maine without actually being there.

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