Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs is the kind of writing I have a deep ambivalence about. On one side, I genuinely enjoy reading such aware, thoughtful observations of and interactions with a region and its people, and this exploration of the small coastal community of Dunnet’s Landing is firmly within my longstanding “gardening” category of literature. On the other, I question the real value in this kind of quiet, objectless narrative, no matter how lovely the vignettes. I wouldn’t argue that the book isn’t about anything, or that its social and domestic themes are unimportant, but for such a well-made piece of work it just doesn’t seem to add up to as much as I would like it to, I guess.
It is well-made, with many of the qualities of good travel-writing. Jewett’s descriptions are one of the main draws; town and country, flora and fauna are finely rendered.
When I thought we were in the heart of the inland country, we reached the top of a hill, and suddenly there lay spread out before us a wonderful great view of well-cleared fields that swept down to the wide water of a bay. Beyond this were distant shores like another country in the midday haze which half hid the hills beyond, and the faraway pale blue mountains on the northern horizon. There was a schooner with all sails set coming down the bay from a white village that was sprinkled on the shore, and there were many sailboats flitting about it. It was a noble landscape, and my eyes, which had grown used to the narrow inspection of a shaded roadside, could hardly take it in.
That’s not to say the characters aren’t also a draw. Mrs. Blackett, the mother of the narrator’s landlady, is one of the most adorable little old women I’ve ever encountered in any sort of book, and, along with her daughter, would make the novella a deserved favorite for many readers. I won’t say anything against them—their very goodness is part of what makes me wish for more here.
There are other characters outside the narrator’s circle of closest acquaintances who can be a bit mysterious or intriguing instead of familiar and beloved. One of these is Joanna Todd, a cousin by marriage of the narrator’s landlady (it’s a small town). Joanna inherited half of a farm and all of Shell-heap Island from her parents. After an ill-starred love affair, Joanna signed her half of the farm over to her brother and set out for the island in the bay, never to return to live among men. The narrator is fascinated by her story of isolation, and on visiting her grave, “[i]n 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.”
Dunnet’s Landing is a dying place, and the narrator seems to be documenting it with some reference to this fact. The very reason she has come here is for a refuge from busy city life, so that she can be alone and think and write. The town still has a busy port, reliant as the citizens are on fishing and lobstering to make their living. But at one time it was also an exporter of real seamen, sending its sons and their families on whaling and trading voyages around the world. Margaret Cohen’s essay on “The Chronotopes of the Sea,” which I examined oh-so-long-ago now, includes as one such “the shore, a zone of contact between land and sea” where the “social world expands from one society or even several societies to include people from all over the globe.” But Dunnet’s Landing is beginning to lose these characteristics; the town is still on the coast and boats may daily ply the waters of its bay, but the venerable old Captain Littlepage knows what the town has lost with the sunset of whaling and other shipping in the area. Not only has a certain class of men lost a fitting and productive profession, but
“I view it, in addition, that a community narrows down and grows dreadful ignorant when it is shut up to its own affairs, and gets no knowledge of the outside world except from a cheap, unprincipled newspaper. In the old days, a good part o’ the best men here knew a hundred ports and something of the way folks lived in them. They saw the world for themselves, and like’s not their wives and children saw it with them. They may not have had the best of knowledge to carry with ‘em sight-seein’, but they were some acquainted with foreign lands an’ their laws, an’ could see outside the battle for town clerk here in Dunnet; they got some sense o’ proportion. Yes, they lived more dignified, and their houses were better within an’ without. Shipping’s a terrible loss to this part o’ New England from a social point o’ view, ma’am.”