An endearing, unlikely friendship set against the backdrop of a beautiful Maine coastal town provides the setting for what is considered to be Sarah Orne Jewett's finest work. Loosely structured, the narrative is unified through both setting and theme and can be read as a study of the effects of isolation and the hardships encountered in the face of decaying industry. The moving prose invites the reader into an intimate portrait of a New England town and its characterful inhabitants whose prickly exteriors often conceal a warm and loyal nature.
Comparison between The Country of the Pointed Firs and the work of L. M. Montgomery is irresistible. The anecdotes, the character sketches, the sense of community, the love of beauty in nature, the good-natured humor scattered here and there — all are highly reminiscent of Montgomery's style. It's clear that both authors deeply loved the communities they depict in their stories, and their themes are very similar: an old sea-captain spinning a yarn, a faithful widower grieving for his wife, a disappointed lover withdrawing from her world, and others. In some places I was also reminded of Anne Morrow Lindbergh's nonfiction book Gift from the Sea; there is something akin in the tone of the two books. I would like to have known their authors.
The prose is just lovely, so spare and graceful. Consider the elegant constructions and poetic feel in these sentences:
The captain was very grave indeed, and I bade my inward spirit keep close to discretion. (10)
The poets little knew what comfort they could be to a man. (15)
I had been living in the quaint little house with as much comfort and unconsciousness as if it were a larger body, or a double shell, in whose simple convolutions Mrs. Todd and I had secreted ourselves, until some wandering hermit crab of a visitor marked the little spare room for her own. Perhaps now and then a castaway on a lonely desert island dreads the thought of being rescued. (36)
...there are paths trodden to the shrines of solitude the world over,—the world cannot forget them, try as it may; the feet of the young find them out because of curiosity and dim foreboding; while the old bring hearts full of remembrance. This plain anchorite had been one of those whom sorrow made too lonely to brave the sight of men, too timid to front the simple world she knew, yet valiant enough to live alone with her poor insistent human nature and the calms and passions of the sea and sky. (54–5)
Or the sly humor here:
I saw that Mrs. Todd's broad shoulders began to shake. "There was good singers there; yes, there was excellent singers," she agreed heartily, putting down her teacup, "but I chanced to drift alongside Mis' Peter Bowden o' Great Bay, an' I couldn't help thinkin' if she was as far out o' town as she was out o' tune, she wouldn't get back in a day." (76)
At first he seemed to be one of those evasive and uncomfortable persons who are so suspicious of you that they make you almost suspicious of yourself. (77)
I know very little about Jewett, but I have a notion that she was a woman who knew how to be alone. Yet it is apparent that she also enjoyed her fellow beings and found great pleasure in observing them. She shares this pleasure with her readers, and I will certainly be looking for more of her work. Thoughtful and quieting.
A young woman writer spends her summer in the small coastal Maine town of Dunnet Landing. She develops a friendship with her landlady, Mrs. Todd, and through her meets other women of the area. These women tell stories of both the inhabitants of Dunnet and the surrounding islands, and their vivid descriptions of both people and places naturally includes the beauty and ruggedness of the country.
There is no direct plot, instead the book consists of the weaving together of these stories. These reminiscences tell of a simple world with straight forward values that encourage the reader to dream of their own yesterdays. Originally published in 1896, this book still resonates with spiritual quality and merit in our busy lives today.
There isn't much to this story, not really a plot, just collected stories from the unnamed narrator as she spends a summer in Dunnett Landing, meeting friends and family of her landlady. There is herb gathering, family reunions, and boat trips for the day - depending on the wind direction. There are stories from sea-faring days, and even laments of how life is changing by the end of the 1800s. But overall, there is a peacefulness, and calm that comes with Mrs Todd and the stories related in this quiet book. I'm so delighted to have discovered this gem.
Tact is after all a kind of mindreading, and my hostess held the golden gift. p59
on old friends:
There, it does seem so pleasant to talk with an old acquaintance that know what you know. Conversation's got to have some root in the past, or else you've got to explain every remark you make, an' it wears a person out. p73
on life near an ocean:
[The view] gave a sudden sense of space, for nothing stopped the eye or hedged one in, - that sense of liberty in space and time which great prospects always give. p58
As for the novel itself, Mrs. Almira Todd is one of my all-time favorite characters in literature. "Mrs. Todd was an ardent lover of herbs, both wild and tame, and the sea-breezes blew into the low end-window of the house laden with not only sweet-briar and sweet-mary, but balm and sage and borage and mint, wormwood and southernwood. If Mrs. Todd had occasion to step into the far corner of her herb plot, she trod heavily upon thyme, and made its fragrant presence known with all the rest. Being a very large person, her full skirts brushed and bent almost every slender stalk that her feet missed. You could always tell when she was stepping there, even when you were half awake in the morning, and learned to know, in the course of a few weeks' experience, in exactly which corner of the garden she might be."
Much of the first half is taken up with Mrs. Todd’s gathering of herbs (she also has an herb garden) her sale of them to the townsfolk as simples, the narrator’s assistance in these enterprises, the very pleasant visit the two of them make to Green Island, where Almira's brother William lives with her mother Mrs. Blackett, and the visit of Almira’s friend Susan Fosdick.
It is summer when the narrator comes to Dunnet, and for fifty cents a week she rents the idle schoolhouse on the hill as a daytime office for her writing. There one day Captain Littlepage tells her of a ship’s captain colleague who is convinced he sailed north past any settlements to an illusory town on a headland inhabited by foglike specters.
We hear from Susan Fosdick and Almira the story of poor Joanna and her self-imposed lifetime exile on Shell-heap Island, which the narrator explores one day when she’s sailing with Captain Bowden. “In the life of each of us, I said to myself, there is a place remote and islanded, and given to endless regret or secret happiness; we are each the uncompanioned hermit and recluse of an hour or a day; we understand our fellows of the cell to whatever age of history they may belong.”
In the later pages the narrator goes with Almira and her mother to the Bowden family reunion at the old Bowden house in the upper bay, a huge affair involving a picnic in the woods overlooking the bay. Returning, she comments “The road was new to me, as roads always are, going back.”
Before she leaves Dunnet at the end of the summer, she befriends an old widowed fisherman, Elijah Tilley, and spends an afternoon at his house.
"There was an elegant ingenuity displayed in the form of pies which delighted my heart."
Or this description of aging:
"So we always keep the same hearts, though our outer framework fails and shows the touch of time."
Or this line about Mrs. Todd's elderly mother getting into a wagon:
"Whatever doubts and anxieties I may have had about the inconvenience of the Begg's high wagon for a person of Mrs. Blackett's age and shortness, they were happily overcome by the aid of a chair and her own valiant spirit."
I have to admit that at times, spoiled perhaps by today's page-turners, I got impatient with this slim volume. But when I took a breath, set back, and savored the words, I thoroughly enjoyed this beautiful description of lives well-lived.