The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896)

by Sarah Orne Jewett

Willa Cather once commented that the three masterpieces of American literature are The Scarlet Letter, Huckleberry Finn, and The Country of the Pointed Firs. Few would dissent about the first two; few are even acquainted with the third.
But those who read it usually find much to praise in The Country of the Pointed Firs, including exact writing, vivid description of place and character, and meditative mood.

For those who expect a novel to have a plot with a crisis and a denouement, the book may be somewhat discombobulating. The story leads up to no particular event or turning point. It is a series of character sketches unified by the setting — author Sarah Orne Jewett's native Maine at the end of the 19th century. The sea is an overbearing presence in the fictional coastal town of Dunnet Landing; it is the source of most residents' livelihoods and the burial place of many seafaring husbands.

Except for the unnamed narrator, who has come for the summer to finish a writing project, all the characters are elderly. Through her landlady, Mrs. Todd, a practitioner of herbal healing, the visiting writer meets other locals and hears (in the Maine dialect) their own stories and tales about other residents present and past. The characters are exemplars of New England self-reliance; even Mrs. Todd's 86-year-old mother is still keeping house on an island off the coast. Though the lives seem solitary — none of them has a living spouse — they have a community and cherish infrequent opportunities to socialize.

As the narrator returns to the city at the end of the novel, her thoughts are about the dignity and strength of people who do not let isolation and hardship proscribe their lives.


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