Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Country of the Pointed Firs: Jewett's Exquisite Book

The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett is intense in its depictions of people sharing their lives while also living apart and alone. An author spends a summer in a remote coastal village in Maine, at the end of the 19th century. She meets people who show her parts of their life and the depths of their character. And at the end, she has to leave. It's only a season, full of weight and breadth but also coming quickly to an end.

The book, which I read for the Classics Club Challenge, isn't plot-heavy. It's a collection of meetings, conversations, meditations on nature (human and the natural world), all beautifully written. The people who inhabit the village become extraordinary because of the attention the author gives them. Here's one look at Mrs. Todd, whose house the author stays in for the summer:
It is not often given in a noisy world to come to the places of great grief and silence. An absolute, archaic grief possessed this countrywoman; she seemed like a renewal of some historic soul, with her sorrows and the remoteness of a daily life busied with rustic simplicities and the scents of primeval herbs.

And here is an old man she meets:
There was a patient look on the old man's face, as if the world were a great mistake and he had nobody with whom to speak his own language or find companionship.

The book weaves together beauty and joy with misery and loss. These feelings are inseparable. As the author looks out on nature, she observes the decay and death along with the promise and loveliness:

The tide was setting in, and plenty of small fish were coming with it, unconscious of the silver flashing of the great birds overhead and the quickness of their fierce beaks. The sea was full of life and spirit…

It was not the first time that I was full of wonder at the waste of human ability in this world, as a botanist wonders at the wastefulness of nature, the thousand seeds that die, the unused provision of every sort.

The author grows pretty close to some of the villagers, and the villagers feel fairly close to each other, or at least committed to each other; at the same time, they're separated in private griefs and memories they rarely speak about. They've enlarged their lives by finding a place in an extended family or community, or by gaining an intimate knowledge of nature, whether the woods or the sea. But they're still alone, each distinct and separate in character.

I'm tempted to share many more excerpts from this book, because it's so beautifully written. The author takes a season and tries to give it permanence in text. Even when there's the bittersweet feeling of knowing it all passes, that all these people have died, something of them and the world they live in are still around.

In the life of each of us… there is a place remote and islanded, and given to endless regret or secret happiness; we are each the uncompanioned hermit and recluse of an hour or a day; we understand our fellows of the cell to whatever age of history they may belong.