With summer rolling into the northern hemisphere, there is no better time to read Sarah Orne Jewett’s masterpiece The Country of the Pointed Firs. The novel was published in 1896 and tells the story in loving, respectful detail of life in a coastal Mainevillage at the end of the 19th century. Some of her best drawn characters are the village’s independent, steadfast, and wise women.
Sarah Orne Jewett was born in 1849 into a New Englandfamily whose wealth meant that she was able to write when and what she pleased without having to do other work or marry to support herself. She spent her life travelling, visiting friends and writing three novels and numerous short stories. Though her work is as beautiful, insightful, and engaging as Wharton, Alcott, Hawthorne, or any of her contemporaries, she is now rarely remembered, but she deserves your attention.
The Country of the Pointed Firs has a simple plot. A woman writer boards at the home of a woman herbalist for the summer. She visits ordinary people, hears their stories, attends her landlady’s family reunion, and then goes home. What is extraordinary about the plot is not that nothing happens, but that focusing on the daily occurrences, few but beloved possessions, and hard-won wise talk of the characters highlights the drama and intensity of what happens to ordinary people every day. When you read about the dessert table at the family reunion, you can smell the cinnamon in the apple pies, taste the grainy frosting decorating the cakes, and hear the crunch of the gingerbread reconstruction of the family homestead. You are there and you come to care as much about the success of the reunion as the characters do. The novel is not just a celebration of everyday life, but an expression of its splendor and wisdom.
I also love the women characters. This book was written before women had the vote and when women’s rights and public roles were severely restricted. Yet, most of the women in the book are single, by choice or widowhood, with none of them seeking to be otherwise. The protagonist herself makes her living by writing. Her landlady takes in boarders and grows and sells herbal remedies to the people of the village. They go to visit the landlady’s 83-year-old mother who lives alone with her reclusive son on a remote island. Among the stories the protagonist hears is that of Joanna, who lost in love and went to live as a hermit, completely self-sufficient, on another island, though still beloved by the people in the village. Each of the women thinks nothing of her independent life, cherishing her freedom and living the lot life gave her.
The magic of The Country of the Pointed Firs is that it will leave you knowing that your everyday life is sacred, that living in the moment and being content with who you are is normal and not something that needs to be achieved, and that when you live connected to the land upon which you walk, you will know who you are and find your life fulfilling and meaningful. Each of the characters in the book is a teacher in the way they live with dignity, faith that life and other people are basically good, and the belief that their everyday lives are rich and worthwhile. It is like a cold glass of ice water on an August day – refreshing, essential, pure, and a way to connect with all that is most important in our world.