Monday, January 14, 2008

Country of the Pointed Firs

I feel inadequate to the task of writing about Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories by Sarah Orne Jewett. Can I just say everyone needs to read this book and have that be enough? Of course it is not enough because you are like me and have a TBR pile big enough to last you a lifetime, so why should you add one more book?

Country of the Pointed Firs is a novella. A woman from the city is lodging with Mrs. Todd in Dunnett Landing, a small coastal town in Maine. The woman who never has a name is a writer and has come to Dunnett Landing to get away and work and get some fresh air. Over the course of the summer she becomes a friend to Mrs. Todd and all the other residents of Dunnett Landing. And as she becomes part of the community the reader feels as though they are becoming part of it too. The stories that follow the novella take place in and around the same area with a few venturing as far away as Vermont. Some of the characters in these other stories are familiar, some not. But they only serve to make the reader feel as though that neat little house with the garden in bloom just up ahead is the reader's house and you've only just been out for a visit or to gather some wild herbs and are now returning home for a cup of tea and a simple supper followed by a quiet evening of knitting next to the stove.

The people are independent Yankee folks. Most of the stories center around women and most of those women are middle-aged or older. They are women who have never married because they had spent their youth caring for elderly parents or they are widows whose husbands died at sea. But these women are strong and take care of themselves. They do not fish like the men but they can handle a sailboat just as well and when it comes to farming often manage the fields better than their husbands did. Or, in the case of Mrs. Todd, she sells cures and remedies to people made from the herbs she grows in her garden or gathers wild from the woods or one of the many small islands just off the coast.

Because it is a small community everyone knows everyone and everyone must get along even if they don't really like each other. This does not mean they can't gossip about the people they don't get along with, but there is a certain level of civility and appearances that must be kept up. And it helps to have a good sense of humor too. But even while laughing at someone it is not mocking or derisive but often gentle. Like when Mrs. Todd, her mother Mrs. Blackett, and the unnamed writer go to the Bowden family reunion, Mrs. Todd assesses the singing that had gone on there:
'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.'
I love that! The book was filled with moments that made me laugh. There were some that made me cry too and others that were so beautiful they took my breath away.

One story I especially liked was "A White Heron." Maybe it stood out because the protagonist is a nine-year-old girl. Or maybe because the girl, Sylvia, climbed the tallest tree around in order to see where the white heron lived but in the process saw the sunrise and the ocean and discovered something about herself too. She climbed the tree because a man who was studying birds was staying at Sylvia and her aunt's cabin. He asked Sylvia if she knew where the white heron lived because they were rare birds and he wanted to kill it so he could study it. He would give her ten dollars-- a lot of money to her--if she could tell him where the heron lived. But she cannot tell:
No, she must keep silence! What is it that suddenly forbids her and makes her dumb? Has she been nine years growing and now, when the great world for the first time puts out a hand to her, must she thrust it aside for the bird's sake? The murmur of the pine's green branches is in her ears, she remembers how the white heron came flying through the golden air and how they watched the sea and the morning together, and Sylvia cannot speak; she cannot tell the heron's secret and give its life away.
I wanted to hug her for keeping silent. And I think that's why I enjoyed this book so much. I liked the people in it. I felt as though I knew them. I've sat by fires when I was a kid listening to the adults tell stories and this book brought that all back. The warmth, the safety, the comfort, the feeling that sure, bad things happen, but we get through them and everything is really alright or will be alright as long as we can stick together and watch out for each other. I think the unnamed writer says it perfectly in the story "William's Wedding"
Santa Teresa says that the true proficiency of the soul is not in much thinking, but in much loving, and sometimes I believed that I have never found love in its simplicity as I had found at Dunnett Landing in the various hearts of Mrs. Blackett and Mrs. Todd and William. It is only because one came to know them, these three, loving and wise and true, in their own habitations. Their counterparts are in every village in the world, thank heaven, and the gift to one's life is only in its discernment...'The happiness of life is in its recognitions. It seems that we are not ignorant of these truths, and even that we believe them; but we are so little accustomed to think of them, they are so strange to us--'
Country of the Pointed Firs will get you to thinking about those recognitions. When I closed the book I was sad because I felt like I was leaving home. But all I have to do to return is open the book, or look around. I know these people. I think I met one of them just the other day...

Cross-posted at So Many Books

1 comment:

musingsfromthesofa said...

You have made me think that I really do need to read this book. Thank you!