The Country of the Pointed Firs
“I now remembered that Mrs. Todd had told me one day that Captain Littlepage had overset his mind with too much reading.” ― Sarah Orne Jewett
Jewett’s novel The Country of the Pointed Firs is the culmination of the regional characters, themes, and techniques that Jewett explored for so many years. It is a composite novel organized around alternating currents of separation and reunion, Jewett never wrote a conventionally-plotted novel, and in this tale a visiting writer-narrator from the city is slowly changed from an outsider into an initiated insider in the life of the largely female community of Dunnet Landing, a tiny seacoast village in Maine. The first chapter, titled “Return”, represents a reunion of sorts in that the narrator is returning to a place with which she previously fell in love. After that very short opening she is quickly drawn into the world of her landlady, Mrs. Almira Todd, the local herbalist who seems to possess a special spiritual outlook.
Soon the narrator feels the need to separate so that she can complete the writing project she brought with her. After listening to a strange tale about a limbo-like “waiting place” between this world and the next in the fog-bound arctic regions, the narrator reunites with Mrs. Todd, and they both discover that their relationship has improved in mutual consideration and empathy as a result of the separation. They have achieved a balance between the basic human needs for both connection and separation. This alternating pattern of separation and reunion continues in a number of different ways throughout the novel, ending with the narrator’s departure from Dunnet Landing.
Dunnet Landing and the surrounding country is populated with charming characters whose stories fill the spaces between the description of the lovely Maine north country. One of those characters, Captain Littlepage, had time for both sailing and reading. The latter activity was evidently also a pastime of the narrator who dotted the narrative with references to Shakespeare, Milton, and others.
The scenery is captured in moments like this:
"We were standing where there was a fine view of the harbor and its long stretches of shore all covered by the great army of the pointed firs, darkly cloaked and standing as if they waited to embark. As we looked far seaward among the outer islands, the trees seemed to march seaward still, going steadily over the heights and down to the water's edge."(p. 33)
The chill in the air on winter nights was tempered by the heat from a Franklin Stove (no doubt very much like the one in my sister's home in the high country of northeastern Nevada). One of the best moments in the story was the Bowden family reunion that brought together many of the people from the area in a way that you can only experience in small out of the way communities like Dunnet Landing.
The Country of the Pointed Firs was greeted with strongly positive reviews. Indeed, a few years later, Jewett's friend Willa Cather would rate it as one of the three great classics of American literature (the other two being The Scarlet Letter and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn). I'm not sure I agree completely with Cather, but this is a fine short novel depicting late nineteenth century Americana.