Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Spending Leisurely Time in Maine With Ms. Sarah O Jewett

I remember hearing the name Sarah Orne Jewett when still in school years ago but for the life of me would not be able to talk about any aspect of her or what she wrote except that she wrote short stories.

I recently finished one of her more important works, a novella entitled The Country of the Pointed Fir.
I started it and read it in fits and starts and thought I was going nowhere with it and then put it down, read another book and picked it up again because I really wanted to finish the four stories in the book Four Stories by American Woman (Penguin Classics).
I started it from the beginning once again and gave myself a good couple of hours to really get into it and get into it I did.  Reading this story was like going on a holiday.

Sarah Orne Jewett grew up in Maine and lived during the last half of the 19th century dying in 1909 of a stroke. If a reader didn't know she was an American writer they could easily believe this is an English period novel.

It takes place in a small regional fishing village on the coast of Maine called Dunnet Landing.  The narrator spent her summer there in a local boarding house sparsely occupied. Her objective is to finish her writing. She had spent time in Dunnet Landing previously and came back this summer as she had enjoyed the spot so much.  She becomes quite distracted by all of the goings on in the household as well as the village mainly due to Mrs. Todd's apothecary practice and selling her famous Spruce beer. She rents the old school house as it is summer vacation and attempts to write there in peace and quiet each day.

This is when I got to meet the old retired sea captain, Captain Littlepage who wandered up to the school one day after a local funeral.  He tells tales of his experiences at sea that continue on a bit too long but our narrator is very good at not appearing bored though you do feel it with her until she picks the conversation up again.

I always enjoy stories that take place in old hotels or boarding houses where each room has interesting or eccentric characters.  When first published this book was described as a "series of sketches" that connect and that is exactly what it is.

She befriends Mrs. Almira Todd and eventually several of Mrs. Todd's family members.  Her mother who lived off shore on an island was my favourite character. I just wanted to bundle up for the sea winds and go live on the island with her.  Mrs. Todd is an eccentric wonderful character who spends days picking herbs and making potions to sell the village locals.  She weaves interesting tales about the other residents of the village.
I particularly like this photo of the
I found the writing gentle and although there is rarely much overt action, the descriptions of the days they share alone, with each other or with other villagers keep the pace going. I found myself loving everyone there. I really cared about the characters and their lives.  Descriptions of the village, the occupants activities and the food they eat, their conversations when they visited each other become so real I felt as though I was there living in the village with them. Everyone is so kind to each other.

I thoroughly enjoyed this beautiful, scenic idyllic place and was sad when I had to leave it.

The novella is only 140 pages long though it did feel much longer than that. Maybe because I read it slowly and savoured every word. I think the writing is very beautiful and doesn't linger too long on any one point.

The following paragraph describes the first day our narrator arrives at Dunnet Landing.

After a first brief visit made two or three summers before in the course of a yachting cruise, a lover of Dunnet Landing returned to find the unchanged shores of the pointed firs, the same quaintness of the village with its elaborate conventionalities; all that mixture of remoteness, and childish certainty of being the centre of civilization of which her affectionate dreams had told. 
One evening in June, a single passenger landed upon the steamboat wharf. The tide was high, there was a fine crowd of spectators  and the younger portion of the company followed her with subdued excitement up and down the narrow street of the salt-aired, white-clapboarded little town.

The characters are introduced as they are encountered and a tale then evolves from the meeting.  We learn much of the town's history and the family relationships from the conversations our narrator has with everyone.
Travellin Penguin particularly likes Maine Lobster.
It feels when reading it as if the reader is visiting the town, meeting these people, having tea with them and getting to know them as it would happen in "real life".  Slowly we get to know the characters more and more from continued encounters with them. I found all of the characters likeable and really enjoyed spending time with them.  I would highly recommend this novella and when finished I hope other readers feel as if they have visited Dunnet Landing and enjoyed it as much as I did. I will certainly read more by this author when I can.


  1. An interesting dress design in the photo of the lady. The V-dip and all the zig-zags in front are really odd.

  2. Yes, I love it, I love the old clothes people used to wear but glad I don't need to dress up in them everyday. Would take ages and I have no money for a maid.

  3. I can't imagine wearing all those long dresses and what was under them in south Florida. HOT! They did it though.

  4. I bought a Library of America edition of her stories and novels on impulse several years ago, and when I finally got around to reading them I fell in love. It starts with Deephaven, which is also about a summer spent in Maine - in this case, in an old house that fell vacant with a great-aunt's death. The books remind me a little of L.M. Montgomery, with their country settings and their close-knit communities.

    1. I really enjoy her writing. Wouldn't mind reading more. Nice to hear from you.


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