The Country of the Pointed Firs

pointed firs

Backside of Buck’s Ledge



A professor of American studies taught our undergraduate class on Maine writers at UMF. When I joined the course I was a bit disappointed to discover that contemporary novels were not to be considered. Since then I’ve been grateful it was otherwise, but I would not mind taking the course I had hoped for even now. Professor Jay Hoar taught that Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs was considered a realistic novel in 1896, but had since been viewed, by academic regionalists, as an example of fiction by a local colorist. Willa Cather, writing in the preface to my paperback edition, grouped this book with The Scarlet Letter, and Huckleberry Finn as lasting American novels. “I can think of no others that confront time and change so serenely.”


There are many wonderful profound quotes from this book that help me think about how to live. And imaginative equivalents of all my senses are craftily evoked in this writing. The hamlet of Dunnet Landing and surroundings, including the great sea and islands — all are lively, full. The characters of this rural farming and fishing town are all distinct individuals, wrought by a careful pen with insightful eye. But the quotations included here are not descriptive, and I find posts more descriptive of place to be of little interest to me when reading online. Sarah Orne Jewett plainly captures most especially the quality of speech, but the whole personal idiosyncratic character of Maine, along with its landscape and geographical character.

The reserve force of society grows more and more amazing to one’s thought. More than one face among the Bowdens showed that only opportunity and stimulus were lacking,—a narrow set of circumstances had caged a fine able character and held it captive. One sees exactly the same types in a country gathering as in the most brilliant city company. You are safe to be understood if the spirit of your speech is the same for one neighbor as for the other.   (chapter 18)

Tact is after all a kind of mindreading, and my hostess held the golden gift. Sympathy is of the mind as well as the heart, and Mrs. Blackett’s world and mine were one from the moment we met. Besides, she had that final, that highest gift of heaven, a perfect self-forgetfulness. Sometimes, as I watched her eager, sweet old face, I wondered why she had been set to shine on this lonely island of the northern coast. It must have been to keep the balance true, and make up to all her scattered and depending neighbors for other things which they may have lacked.    (chapter 10)

As we passed I waved my hand and tried to call to him, and he looked up and answered my farewells by a solemn nod.  (2nd to last paragraph)

In another story, The Flight of Betsy Lane,” she says, “They are by no means without that true tact which is only another word for unselfish sympathy.”

Here in Maine’s western mountains we live in our own country of the pointed firs. I do a lot of snowshoeing among them, and occasionally encounter loggers busy in their harvest (but most concerned to bring down another conifer, the great white pine). I was shoeing the side of a low mountain behind our cabin yesterday, hearing the saw, and at one point continually praying to escape the crash of one of its victims, while clamoring over snow-hidden debris and occasionally catching the webbing of my great shoe. It was fifteen degrees f. but I was sweating. This is the same slope on which we saw the bloody chewed out remains of a deer overwhelmed by coyotes about this time last year. I may be keeping off that part for the rest of the year.

trail in woods

Just step outside for a minute


2 responses

  1. What do you think she means by “You are safe to be understood if the spirit of your speech is the same for one neighbor as for the other”? I feel it must be saying something about treating all people equitably and not being curt with one and attentive to another, but what does the “safe to be understood” part mean? That people will understand you?


    • maybe it means spirit is more important as it goes straight to the point of speaking? what if the same words were used in two very different spirits or tones?

      (there’s wisdom in her work and she writes lots featuring older women. was a friend of the greats, as i understand; friends with Henry James, for instance.)


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