The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett (1896)

The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett

The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett (1896) is considered this New England author’s finest work. Neither a novel nor traditional short stories, this book is rather a series of linked sketches of a fictional Maine seaport town called Dunnet Landing.

A quietly evocative writing style conveyed everyday events and quiet emotions, the joys as well as the inevitable losses and hardships experienced the people living in Maine’s coastal fishing villages. Crafting a portrait of a disappearing way of life with this book and the others that she wrote, Jewett helped popularize the genre of regionalism in fiction.

In that way, her work might be seen as a predecessor to the contemporary Maine author Elizabeth Strout, who used a similar device of linked tales in Olive Kitteridge

Jewett was a mentor, colleague, and friend of Willa Cather, who admired her greatly. In 1925 (some 16 years after Jewett’s death), she wrote, “If I were asked to name three American books which have the possibility of a long, long, life, I should say at once: The Scarlett Letter, Huckleberry Finn, and The Country of the Pointed Firs. I think of no others that confront time and change so serenely.  The last book seems to  me fairly to shine with reflection of its long joyous future.”


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Unfortunately, The Country of the Pointed Firs doesn’t stand among the American classics that are still read and studied. Cather modestly left out her own books that have become classics (O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, and My Ántonia came out the decade before she made this statement; Death Comes for the Archbishop, considered one of her finest novels, would be published in 1927).

Willa Cather did recognize that The Country of the Pointed Firs was Sarah Orne Jewett’s masterpiece. It was well regarded in its time, and it’s never too late to rediscover a worthy classic. Following is a review that captured the spirit of this book, from the year in  which it was published. 


An 1896 review of The Country of the Pointed Firs

From the original review of  The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah One Jewett in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 6, 1896): Sarah One Jewett’s latest volume, The County of the Pointed Firs, is a delightful book. The title is attractive and you begin, thinking you have a story here, some romance of that quaint Maine coast and its people.

You read, turning page after page, charged with the dainty landscape pictures and with the half-humorous, half-pathetic, yet wholly human and natural sketches of the odd individualities which the author finds among them. You are waiting all the while for the story to begin and the plot to develop, when, lo, the end is reached, and there is no plot, only a series of bright and sunny sketches, flecked here and there, like the landscape, with bits of cloud shadows.

It is a tale of a summer spent in one of the nooks of the Maine coast, away from the currents of tourist travel. The author’s method is so entirely natural and unaffected that you do not suspect the art of it until the last leaf is turned and your are in a condition of pleased surprise to find how you have been beguiled.


The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett

The Country of the Pointed Firs on Amazon


Her quick sympathy and abiding regard for the sterling hearted, simple folk about her has helped her to catch impressions that are photographic for clearness and fidelity to nature, while her pictures are as full of warmth and color as a June day on the landlocked, island-studded bay which fronts the country of her sojourn.

There is no searching for queer characters, no straining for dialect effects. The author takes the people as she finds them, those that cross her path every day, and sets them in a series of miniatures that are wonderfully lifelike. You feel that you know them.

You are on a familiar footing with the strong-minded, masterful, yet wholly womanly Mrs. Almira Todd, and take a keen interest in her “her decoctions.” The visiting friend, Mrs. Fosdick, is another exquisite bit of character drawing, while the pictures of Mrs. Todd’s mother, the sweet, simple hearted, lovely old woman, whom you visit at her island farm home, are as fine as a nosegay of mignonette from her old-fashioned garden.

The descriptions of the mustering of the clans of the Bowden family at the old homestead, back among the hills, and of the people encountered there, the ride to and from the rendezvous in the high wagon from the Beggses, is a bit of exceptionally fine literary work, full of mental snapshots that are perfect in their realism. We do not think this author has ever done better work than she has given us in The Country of the Pointed Firs.


How The Country of the Pointed Firs begins …

I. THE RETURN
There was something about the coast town of Dunnet which made it seem more attractive than other maritime villages of eastern Maine. Perhaps it was the simple fact of acquaintance with that neighborhood which made it so attaching, and gave such interest to the rocky shore and dark woods, and the few houses which seemed to be securely wedged and tree-nailed in among the ledges by the Landing. These houses made the most of their seaward view, and there was a gayety and determined floweriness in their bits of garden ground; the small-paned high windows in the peaks of their steep gables were like knowing eyes that watched the harbor and the far sea-line beyond, or looked northward all along the shore and its background of spruces and balsam firs. When one really knows a village like this and its surroundings, it is like becoming acquainted with a single person. The process of falling in love at first sight is as final as it is swift in such a case, but the growth of true friendship may be a lifelong affair.

After a first brief visit made two or three summers before in the course of a yachting cruise, a lover of Dunnet Landing returned to find the unchanged shores of the pointed firs, the same quaintness of the village with its elaborate conventionalities; all that mixture of remoteness, and childish certainty of being the centre of civilization of which her affectionate dreams had told. One evening in June, a single passenger landed upon the steamboat wharf. The tide was high, there was a fine crowd of spectators, and the younger portion of the company followed her with subdued excitement up the narrow street of the salt-aired, white-clapboarded little town.


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