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Carolyn Guinzio

on The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett

The “Dunnet Landing” stories take place at the edge of the continent, where Maine meets the Atlantic. They are as much about a landscape as they are about people. The stories have a strange, singular effect on me. The milieu is conflict-free, or nearly so. This book has no plot. The stories might even be called nostalgic, a quality I abhor in most contexts. Why doesn’t it bother me here? I would never choose the past over the future. But somehow, these pieces allow me to acknowledge some of the losses wrought in the name of progress.

I read it for the beauty of the sentences.

I read it for its quietness and compassion.

At times, the characters experience deep and vivid grief. They mix up herbal remedies for their ailments. They emerge from places of great loneliness, literal islands, to connect, disappearing again into their own universe. Or they retreat into permanent isolation. The narrative is broken, episodic, the narrator’s eye moving over the land, relaying an incident, moving on.

I read it for escape from a landlocked place.

I read it for comfort. In these stories, life has value.

Jewett seems to be trying to capture something pure and undistilled. She was known to value other things above commerce and economic progress. She viewed industry as disfiguring.

I read it for inspiration. The stories function so much like poems.

I read it for relief.

The novella is often described in a way I think belies its great power, with words like delicate, charming, and sweet. It is in fact sensual, original, and stark. I know many people like to read things that speak to what they’re going through. I would say that I don’t, but, when I think about it: time has stopped in The Country of the Pointed Firs. There is great longing for connection. I keep thinking of the relationship between the characters of Mrs. Todd and her mother. The mother comes in to visit from the outer island where she lives, a speck in a boat growing closer, growing smaller when she heads back home. My own mother is in Cook County, Illinois, currently unreachable, storms raging around her.

I read it because it does not speak to what we’re going through.

I read it because it speaks to what we’re going through.