The Country of the Pointed Firs was written in 1895, and it has no plot. I’m hard put to explain why this short book, which moves so quietly to a quiet close, leaves the impression that it does.
Sarah Orne Jewett’s novel is told by a woman writer who goes on what she expects to be a tranquil retreat from crowded Boston to a tiny settlement on the eastern coast of Maine. Jewett calls it Dunnet Landing. “One evening in June, a single passenger landed upon the steamboat wharf.” Strangers are a rarity, and the local children follow her “with subdued excitement up the narrow street of the salt-aired, white clapboarded little town”.
And the place closes around me, seeming to shut me off from the larger world, as the visitor settles in with her landlady, Mrs Todd. This Mrs Todd is an ample, knowledgeable woman, who grows herbs for medicine in her tiny garden. She has “a fine, unhindered voice, as if she were calling across a field.”
“Unhindered” is exactly the right word, describing both the place and the person.
Really, her book consists of a loving description of plants, birds, fish, sheep, weather, and tides, and – keeping pace with them as the summer passes – a record of meetings, conversations, and confessions through which I get to know these people, or at least learn how much there is to know. The truth comes out in stray moments, as it does in life. Paying visits is an art, of course, so is offering hospitality, but these are stories of an intense loneliness that is beyond even looking for consolation.
Joanna, Mrs Todd’s cousin, whose young man threw her over, lived out the rest of her life alone on tiny Shell-heap Island. “How everybody used to notice whether there was smoke out of the chimney!” says Mrs Todd. Was this a wasted life, or was it heroism? Jewett doesn’t offer direct moral judgments. “You must write to the human heart,” she told Willa Cather, “the great consciousness that all humanity goes to make up.”
Many things are left unsaid, by common consent, at Dunnet Landing. When the time comes for the visitor to leave, Mrs Todd only utters a few words “in an unusually loud and business-like voice,” but Jewett makes me very well aware of how she will feel when she is left with the empty bedroom. “So we die before our own eyes; so we see some chapters of our lives come to their natural end.”
Meantime, “the small, unpunctual steamer” has struck out seaward – and when the visitor looks back, Dunnet Landing and all its coasts are lost to sight.
– Penelope Fitzgerald
[Penelope Fitzgerald was the author of several novels and biographies, including The Blue Flower, Offshore, and The Beginning of Spring. She died on April 28, 2000.]
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.
– chapter 1, The Return, p3
That very first evening my friends plunged into a borderless sea of reminiscences and personal news.
– chapter 12, A Strange Sail, p62
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.
– chapter 15, On Shell-Heap Island, p87
The leave-takings were as affecting as the meetings of these old friends had been. There were enough young persons at the reunion, but it is the old who really value such opportunities; as for the young, it is the habit of every day to meet their comrades – the time of separation has not come. To see the joy with which these elder kinsfolk and acquaintances had looked in one another’s faces, and the lingering touch of their friendly hands; to see these affectionate meetings and then the reluctant partings, gave one a new idea of the isolation in which it was possible to live in that after all thinly settled region. They did not expect to see one another again very soon; the steady, hard work on the farms, the difficulty of getting from place to place, especially in winter when the boats were laid up, gave double value to any occasion which could bring a large number of families together. Even funerals in this country of the pointed firs were not without their social advantages and satisfactions. I heard the words “next summer” repeated many times, though summer was still ours and all the leaves were green.
– chapter 19, The Feast’s End, p116
One day as I went along the shore beyond the old wharves and the newer, high-stepped fabric of the steamer leanding, I saw that all the boats were beached, and the slack water period of the early afternoon prevailed. Nothing was going on, not even the most leisurely of occupations, like baiting trawls or mending nets, or repairing lobster pots: the very boats seemed to be taking an afternoon nap in the sun. I could hardly discover a distant sail as I looked seaward, except a weather-beaten lobster smack, which seemed to have been taken for a plaything by the light airs that blew about the bay. It drifted and turned about so aimlessly in the wide reach off Burnt Island, that I suspected there was nobody at the wheel, or that she might have parted her rusty anchor chain while all the crew were asleep.
– chapter 20, Ashore. p120
When I went in again the little house had suddenly grown lonely, and my room looked empty as it had the day I came. I and all my belongings had died out of it, and I knew how it would seem when Mrs Todd came back and found her lodger gone. So we die before our own eyes; so we see some chapters of our lives come to their natural end.
–chapter 21, The Backward View. p137
[Page numbers from the 1995 Modern Library edition]