The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett

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!

38 comments

  1. I read this back in 2001 because a friend of mine gave me a copy and said how much he loved it. I must not have been in the right frame of mind because I don’t remember anything about it even after reading your review. My mind must really have been somewhere else. Your review has convinced me I need to read this one again. In some ways I can understand why I may not have been interested in it nine years ago. Now, however, it seems right up my alley.

    1. Hi Thomas! Yes, isn’t it funny how sometimes books just pass through and leave no trace! I think you’d really enjoy this – it’s a book to savour rather than rush through. Perfect for cosy Autumn evenings.

  2. This absolutely sounds heavenly — I’m with you, as well. There is something about the idea of being in that small town quaint setting, but I wonder if I would go nuts as well after awhile? But, nonetheless, I’d like to pick this one up — I wonder if it’s along the same vein as Richard Russo with his New England settings and quiet appeal?

    1. It really is a heavenly book! I think that idea of peace and close knit community appeals to us all on some level, though whether it’s really as idyllic as we think is another question! I’ve never read any Richard Russo, but of you like New England settings and quiet appeal, then you’ll certainly enjoy this.

  3. I’ve been thinking of reading this for a while, so you’ve convinced me, I’ll pick it up the next time I see it! It sounds like the cozy small towns of Cranford and Avonlea. (I’ve lived in a close knit tiny town like that and while it sometimes was a bit too much, mostly it was really wonderful.)

    1. Carolyn, I know you will adore this. It’s just your sort of book! It is very much like Avonlea and Cranford, excellent analogies – you will want to pack up and be a part of the small community of Dunnet Landing when you read this!

    1. If you love Maine, you’ll adore this! I think I read that you went there this past summer? If so, this will help you relive happy memories. Just the first page hooked me. I so hope I get to visit at some point!

  4. Great review. Now you’re in NYC, perhaps you’ll be able to steal away to Maine for a long-weekend one of these days.

    Also, I’m curious–are you planning to read your READING AMERICA books in any particular order?

    1. Thank you, Deb! I very much hope that I will be able to – I can’t wait to see the firs and the sea and the little villages!

      No, I’m not – I am reading whatever I feel like from the list. It also depends what I can borrow from the library! But if you want me to read something in particular, let me know – I am flexible!

  5. I have read and reread this book many times. As an undergraduate we were required to memorize a passage. It has haunted the back of my mind ever since. Every summer I long for Maine to refresh me from the heat and dust of West Texas.

    1. How wonderful for this to have been part of your life for so long, Mary! I wish I had discovered it many years ago as I know I would have visited Maine on my last trip to New England if I had. Maine would be a perfect escape from anywhere hot and stressful – I long for it!

  6. I’m with Thomas on this one. Read it at university and for the life of me cannot remember a thing. Funny how some books can come into your life at just the right time and others can be read, cast aside, and then rediscovered years later and become treasured friends.

    1. How strange that both you and Thomas had the same experience! It is such a gentle book that I suppose, if the theme didn’t really grab you, it would slip your mind. But I read this at just the right time, and now I have Maine on the brain! I hope you get a chance to read it again Heather!

  7. Many thanks for your kind comments! I don’t know of this author but will keep a look out for her books (good old Oxfam!). I agree about the lure of white houses, with or without a sea view!

    1. It’s a pleasure! Thanks for coming over! She’s not well known, especially not in England, but you might get lucky in Oxfam too. I’m glad you share my love of little white houses!

  8. Spooky! I had never heard of this title but just read about it over on Cornflower Books…and now here!

    Maine is gorgeous, Rachel. To drive along the coast through Boston, New Hampshire and Maine is absolutely stunning and one of the few times I’m speechless during a car ride! I dream of living in England but if I had a second choice it would be somewhere in New England.

    1. What book serendipity! Great minds clearly think alike!

      Oh Darlene! I want a car and ten days to myself to go for a beautiful drive…sadly this won’t happen as I only get 10 days holiday for the entire year, and my dad sold my car when I left.😦 BUT a short trip into New England, hopefully Maine, is on the cards for a weekend break soon. I don’t know how far I’ll get, but anywhere with beautiful leaves to look at will make me happy. New England is where I dream of living….sigh…

    1. I love it when an obscure book suddenly, and completely coincidentally, appears on several people’s radars at once. I think you’d really enjoy this, Hayley – you can buy a Dover Thrift Edition for a couple of pounds from Amazon – I highly recommend it!

  9. Thanks for the recommendation, Rachel! This book sounds like a comfy read, and I’ll have to check it out.

    You should definitely visit Maine sometime. I’m familiar with New Brunswick which is just north east of Maine and very close to Prince Edward Island where L. M. Montgomery was from. It’s a beautiful part of the world with the ocean, rocks, and forests all around you, and the people are extremely friendly and kind. The region is a must visit.

    1. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it, Virginia!

      I am going to do my best to visit the region – everyone seems to sing its praises and I am desperate for some beautiful countryside and sea. You have made a very persuasive argument!

  10. hi! im writing a report about this book and cant find any book in the book store of this book. i’d like to ask what happened to captain littlepage

  11. How I love the fact that you were transported out of the sweaty subway by this book! I first read it while visiting Jamaica and I have always recalled its uncanny ability to make me feel cool in the midst of all that heat. On a later visit to the US, I visited Sarah Orne Jewett’s house. What a wonderful place – like a time machine for instant transportation back to the nineteenth century. At the time of my visit (1999, I think), it seemed to be run by people who were real authorities on Jewett’s work and I was thrilled by the amount of information that they were happy to share about her life and work. She associated with many prominent writers such as Henry James and Willa Cather and it is a great pity that her work was obscured for many years. The quite easy availability of old copies of her works suggests that she was very popular in her own time, but she must have fallen out of favour for a time. Interest in her seem to be reviving. For anyone who likes ebooks, you can get much of her work free here: http://www.manybooks.net.

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