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Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Country of the Pointed Firs

Hello, Blog! You are not forgotten! I have a number of excuses I could display for my neglect – writing, editing, reading, travel, wrist pain, general busyness; in short, life – but I only mention them to show you that I do have legitimate excuses and I haven’t ignored you just because I’m tired of you.

Ahem. Now that I have my excuses out of the way, on to the substance of my post. I’ve wanted to write about the literature I’ve been reading during the past few months. You’ve no doubt noticed that I’ve been posting book reviews on recently published books, but I’ve also been reading older works. 

One of my favorites is The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Short Fiction by Sarah Orne Jewett. Have you heard of Sarah Orne Jewett? She was an American who wrote short stories and essays in the late 1800s and early 1900s. She’s well known as one of the best authors of “local color” writing, a popular genre during those decades in America. Local color works describe the way of life in distinctive rural regions where few readers have visited. She mentored Willa Cather and encouraged her to write her poignant fiction about the Midwest (such as My Antonia and O! Pioneers).

Jewett grew up in southern Maine, an area of beautiful scenery, quaint customs, and quirky people. As she developed her writing craft, she realized she could write popular short stories about that locale. I read the fifteen that were included in this book, my favorite being the longest, The Country of the Pointed Firs.

I file these stories under my “cozy” reads. They remind me of Cranford (by Elizabeth Gaskell) with their peaceful pace, their focus on characters and their stories, and their lingering descriptions of comfy homes and lovely landscapes. But they are uniquely American as they portray the difficult life that these farmers and seafarers cut from the wilderness of land and sea.

The Country of the Pointed Firs plus four short stories tell about Dunnet Landing, a fictional town on the Maine seacoast, as viewed from an outsider narrator who grows to love the place and its folk. This lady is never named; she’s a professional writer who travels there for the summer to work but finds herself hard-pressed to do so when she’s tempted by sunny weather, meadow picnics, island excursions, boat rides, and, above all, fascinating company.

She becomes intimate friends with Mrs. Almira Todd, that lady’s brother, William Blackett, and their mother, Mrs. Blackett. All three are kind, genuine people, well past middle age and full of earthy wisdom. Here’s a taste:

“[Mrs. Blackett] was a delightful little person herself, with bright eyes and an affectionate air of expectation like a child on a holiday. You felt as if Mrs. Blackett were an old and dear friend before you let go her cordial hand.”

Her children are opposites of each other: Mrs. Todd is a talkative herbalist, and William is a silent fisherman. The Blacketts live on a small island (which I really wish I could visit) that reminds me of the bits of Maine that I was blessed to see last year.

Photo Taken by Me

“A long time before we landed at Green Island we could see the small white house, standing high like a beacon, where Mrs. Todd was born and where her mother lived, on a green slope above the water, with dark spruce woods still higher . . . . The house was just before us now, on a green level that looked as if a huge hand had scooped it out of the long green field we had been ascending. A little way above, the dark spruce woods began to climb the top of the hill and cover the seaward slopes of the island. There was just room for the small farm and the forest; we looked down at the fish-house and its rough sheds, and the weirs stretching far out into the water. As we looked upward, the tops of the firs came sharp against the blue sky. There was a great stretch of rough pasture-land round the shoulder of the island to the eastward, and here were all the thick-scattered gray rocks that kept their places, and the gray backs of many sheep that forever wandered and fed on the thin sweet pasturage that fringed the ledges and made soft hollows and strips of green turf like growing velvet. I could see the rich green of bayberry bushes here and there, where the rocks made room. The air was very sweet; one could not help wishing to be a citizen of such a complete and tiny continent and home of fisherfolk.

“The house was broad and clean, with a roof that looked heavy on its low walls. It was one of the houses that seem firm-rooted in the ground, as if they were two-thirds below the surface, like icebergs. The front door stood hospitably open in expectation of company, and an orderly vine grew at each side; but our path led to the kitchen door at the house-end, and there grew a mass of gay flowers and greenery, as if they had been swept together by some diligent garden broom into a tangled heap . . .”

Photo Taken by Me
Sounds like an idyllic escape, doesn’t it? If you’re looking for a short, summery, warm-hearted read this winter that ferries you into the good old days, I highly recommend The Country of the Pointed Firs. If you’re enthralled as I was, check out Jewett’s other short stories, too!

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