This American classic, by Sarah Orne Jewett, is one of those rare books which sports a readable and useful introduction. Willa Cather wrote the preface — empathetic, intuitive, respectful.
As Ms. Jewett herself said, “The thing that teases the mind over and over for years, and at last gets itself put down rightly on paper — whether little or great, it belongs to Literature.” Cather wrote that every great story “must leave in the mind of the sensitive reader an intangible residuum of pleasure; a cadence, a quality of voice that is exclusively the writer’s own, individual, unique. A quality that one can remember without the volume at hand, can experience over and over again in the mind but can never absolutely define, as one can experience in memory a melody, or the summer perfume of a garden.” The great writer must give herself totally to her material, must “fade away into the land and people of [her] heart” — “must die of love only to be born again.”
Cather concludes, in her 1925 evaluation of this 1896 work: “If I were asked to name three American books which have the possibility of a long, long life, I would say at once, The Scarlet Letter, Huckleberry Finn, and The Country of the Pointed Firs. I can think of no others that confront time and change so serenely.” And of our present interest: “It will be a message to the future, a message in a universal language.”
I don’t know about all that, but I do know this book has brought increasing pleasure over years of re-readings to first my mother, and now me. I just finished my umpteenth reading, finding greater depth and artistry than ever before. How did I miss this? Oh, the perfection of that!
The setting of the story is a small, Maine fishing village on a deep water harbor which opens into an ocean bay dotted with islands. The plot is minimal. A city-bred writer discovers life anew during a summer spent among the citizens of this hamlet. Her empathy and insight into character, rather than plot, are what draw the reader deeper and deeper into the story. The natural setting, of fishermen’s and sea captains’ homes, the tides and winds, the upland fields and pastures, the flowers, tress, shrubs, and weeds — the “pointed firs” — all become shapers of the story.
I used to read this for pleasure — which I still do — but now I read it for the tears that come from Jewett’s unsentimentally poignant literary skill.
You don’t have to be from Maine to enjoy this, but if you are in Maine you will come away understanding better your home’s place in the universe.