Country of the Pointed Firs – Sarah Orne Jewett

Review: Perfect for a holiday read – or for dreaming about being on holiday.

It’s not very often that I finish a book and immediately want to read everything else by that author. It happened with Tove Jansson, Elizabeth von Arnim and now again with Sarah Orne Jewett.

An unnamed narrator spends her summer in the seaside town of Dunnet Landing, Maine, USA, sometime in the late 19th century. There she lives with Mrs Todd, the local herbalist, befriending a cast of colourful locals and enjoying the slow pace of life and beautiful scenery. She recounts their poignant stories with love and affection.

The town itself is experiencing a decline, with not enough men going into the fishing business. Captain Littlepage bemoans the decline of the shipping life.

“I view it … that a community narrows down and grows dreadful ignorant when it is shut up to its own affairs, and gets no knowledge of the outside world except from a cheap, unprincipled newspaper. In the old days, a good part o’ the best men here knew a hundred ports and something of the way folks lived in them. They saw the world for themselves, and like’s not their wives and children saw it with them.”

(p. 9). . Kindle Edition.

Littlepage is unkind, however. The people of Dunnet still maintain a keen interest in the world around them, looking after their neighbours, and enjoying fun and humour. The narrator is amazed that all the women still manage to keep a formal parlour for visitors. The late Mrs Tilley even had a complete set of Bordeaux china.

The town’s women feature prominently. Their stories and camaraderie are the backbone of the town and its history. They’ve loved, lost, laughed, sailed, picked and ploughed their way through life’s joys and misfortunes.

Often while reading “The Country of the Pointed Firs” I was reminded of “The Shipping News”, and I wonder if Annie Proulx was inspired by it. There are many parallels. A stranger arrives in a strange waterside town with its own rituals and curious people. Jewett takes the time to allow characters to tell their own wild stories in their own distinct voices – something which Proulx copies in her novel. I tried to find some quote or proof that Proulx was inspired by Jewett but found nothing.

I did however find a lovely review by Penelope Fitzgerald, whose “The Gate of Angels” I read last year and loved. “It has no plot,” Fitzgerald says in her review. “I’m hard put to explain why this short book, which moves so quietly to a quiet close, leaves the impression that it does.”

Yes, this is a lovely, short, plotless book, and it’s perfect for reading on a holiday morning as you laze about in the country or by the sea. Or, of course, on your commute as you dream of those things. Now don’t mind me, I’m going to download more of Jewett’s books.

“The Country of the Pointed Firs” by Sarah Orne Jewett is available to download for free for Kindle on Amazon or Project Gutenberg.

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Nat Newman

Nat Newman is an award-winning writer of short stories, content, podcasts, feature articles, drunk text messages and, soon, a novella.

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