Publisher: Signet Classic
Pub. Date: 1896, 2000
Genre: Realistic Fiction, Classic
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
A Bostonian woman, the unnamed narrator, moves to Dunnet, Maine, a small coastal town. Mrs. Almira Todd, her landlord, keeps her company and invites her into the town and its history. The narrator rents a schoolhouse so she can focus on writing her novel and interviews some major figures in the town. Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed First introduces a small town in Maine from the outsider’s perspective in chapters that are like short stories.
This novella was required reading for an American literature course that I am taking this semester. Ever since a mother in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, saw that her son checked out Palomar, by Gilbert Hernandez, from the school library and then tried to ban it, I have wanted to read a book that depicts a town and its people in snippets like in real life. I was surprised to find that Jewett’s book did this. One issue I had with the book was getting into it because things did not get interesting until after the eighth chapter. There is also an issue about which edition of her novel to go for since one edition will have twenty-one chapters and another might have more. Jewett expanded and revised her novel in the years following its original publication date. I am reviewing the edition of The Country of the Pointed Firs that ends with “The Backward View.” It is a good, well-written novella that gives a snapshot of important people to the town.
There are a lot of well-developed characters throughout this novel. The primary characters are the narrator and Mrs. Todd. It was strange to read from the novel from a first-person narrator without knowing who they are, but this better facilitated putting the reader in her shoes as an outsider learning about this community. She is working on her novel and getting acquainted with the townsfolk. Mrs. Todd, an herbalist who houses the narrator, treats the sick and introduces the narrator to almost everyone in town. Those people in turn share their own histories. We learn about some of the characters, like Captain Littlepage and Joanna, over a few chapters of storytelling.
The settings are described to be beautiful as is the language Jewett uses. Most of the nature is described in magical terms. The greenery and plants are alive. Even the architecture is described in such a way as to make the town come to life like a person.
The themes in the book are nostalgia, isolation, and herbalism. The nostalgia starts with realizing the narrator has been to the town before. The history of the characters and the town are given not only in dialogue but also in the contrast of herbalism and medicine. All of the characters are isolated in some way, and they are content with that. Because herbalism plays such a prominent role, it quickly becomes apparent that the characters are talked about in general terms, but then they are looked at closer in microscopic detail.
I will have to read this novel again with the added chapter to see how it differs. I wonder how it changes the understanding of the story. If you are interested in a feminist or 19th-century American novella, this novel is interesting if you can hold out past the eighth chapter. As one of my classmates said, “This is the most interesting book I’ve read about people sitting around and talking.”