As much as I love the hustle and bustle, bright lights and constant amusements of life in the big city, there is a part of me that longs to live a simple life in a small white-washed cottage by the sea, with nothing and no one but the great expanse of the sea and the rustle of leaves to accompany my quiet and peaceful days. Obviously I’d get bored after five minutes, but still, the fantasy persists, and Maine has long been the place I fantasise about living in. Its long stretch of coastline, beautiful forests and serene pace of life that I have heard about from people who have visited, or watched in films, has entranced me and fed my imagination, making me long for secluded pine groves and quaint fishing villages. Sarah Orne Jewett’s lovely depiction of life in a tiny Maine seaside village, Dunnet Landing, in the mid 19th century has done nothing but fan the flame of my desire to visit Maine, and I was charmed and delighted by her witty and affectionate portrayal of the inhabitants of this quiet corner of the earth.
It just so happened that I came across a battered little hardback copy of this book in an Oxford Oxfam bookshop just before I left for New York, while I was visiting my dear Naomi for (sob) the last time (though it didn’t turn out to be the last time in the end). I had just posted about my Reading America list of books, and I had picked this for the list after reading Nicola’s enticing review, but I thought it would be tremendously difficult to get hold of. Not so! In an incident of book serendipity, I happened across it in a dark corner of Oxfam, and was delighted to be able to take it in my suitcase with me. It has been a wonderful companion over the past couple of days and transported me far from the sweaty subway and the sweltering, muggy streets of New York.
The story opens with the narrator, a young author, coming back to Dunnet Landing after a break of a few years, to spend the summer concentrating on writing her novel. She stays with Mrs Almira Todd, a warm and generous sixty something sea widow, whose garden is full of fragrant herbs and door always open to sickly locals after one of her ‘potions’ made from these herbs to cure their ails. The pair strike up a firm friendship, though the narrator soon begins to get annoyed with the constant flow of visitors trickling through the house to seek Mrs Todd’s wisdom and take home a concoction. Seeking solitude, she rents a secluded schoolhouse with an unmatched view of the sea in which to write, but the locals won’t leave her alone, and before long she finds herself effortlessly absorbed into the lives of the villagers, eventually falling in love with all of them.
Everyone in Dunnet Landing knows each other, and no one has a bad word to say about anyone else. Families have stayed in the area for generations, and friends, once made, are never forgotten. Neighbours look out for each other; ‘family reunions’ attract whole communities who are related by blood and marriage to common ancestors. People are long lived on the Maine coast, and many a story is told to the narrator about life generations before, when sea captains were ten a penny and many had sailed the world before the age of thirty. In a community where many men were lost at sea, including Mrs Todd’s husband, women stick together and support one another. Marriages are affectionate and strong; men hard working and dutiful, women supportive and caring. There is a wonderful sense of togetherness, and of love and appreciation for one another, throughout the small community that is scattered across the Maine coastline.
Mrs Blackett, Mrs Todd’s wonderful, indomitable mother, lives just off the coast of Dunnet Landing on tiny Green Island, where she has lived most of her adult life. Mrs Todd’s sixty something year old brother Will lives with her, and the small family see each other as often as they can, depending on the weather conditions. Mrs Blackett was one of the most wonderful characters in the book, and her good, gentle heart and delight in her family and friends was magnificent to read about. Will is also wonderful, and there is a beautiful story for him that unfolds in this novel that shows it is never too late for love to blossom. There are so many tales that are told in this slender novel, I can’t even begin to tell them all to you, but what runs through each of them is the pure heartedness and simple good nature of the locals. Though there have been tragedies in all of their lives, and there are plenty of sad stories to tell about the often hard lives they have experienced, the general joy taken in life and stoic determination to make the best of their situation demonstrated by each and every one was inspiring and endearing.
Finally, of course, there are the beautifully written descriptions of the scenery Sarah Orne Jewett saw around her every day; the crystal waters of the Atlantic, the vivid green of the pine forests, the gentle hills, the rolling farmland, the rugged cliffs, the pretty islands; they all came alive in my mind, leaving me desperate for cool sea breezes and peaceful coves. Who could read of a little whitewashed cottage on a green hill by the sea without longing to sit on its porch and watch the tide come in and out, completely at peace? This book tells of a style of life, a gentle, community based existence, that is no longer the norm, but the good heartedness of the characters and the beautiful scenery are still there, for us all to have and enjoy, and that is what makes this book so timeless and charming. The Country of the Pointed Firs is a real American classic, and a marvellous snapshot of New England, and of the unique character of its inhabitants. I’ll definitely be going to Maine now; perhaps I might even make it to the Sarah Orne Jewett House; I hope so!