Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Country of the Pointed Firs, by Sarah Orne Jewett

This classic was on our bookshelves when I was growing up. It was probably on a majority of the bookshelves in Maine, collecting dust on most of them. My parents had read it and spoke of it affectionately, but as a young reader, I wasn't interested in some quaint, fusty old novel set in my own backyard.

Port Clyde, Maine
by N. C. Wyeth
And as I sit here in my Malaysian home, on the cusp of 50, I realise that this book came to me at precisely the right time and place. When I was in my early teens, living in rural mid-coast Maine, my friend and I groused about all the summer tourists. "You should be thankful," her father drawled, "to live in a place that's so beautiful other people will spend their hard-earned money just to come see it." It was an excellent point, of course, and totally wasted on two girls who were bored silly of rocky coastlines dotted with conifers. Some of my schoolmates coveted my peanut butter or egg salad sandwiches. Their fathers were lobstermen, and they were sick to death of lobster salad rolls in their lunch sacks, day in, day out. We just aren't wired to appreciate what we see every day. After 32 years and a move to Kuala Lumpur, I'm finally ready to marvel at the beauty of coastal Maine.  The Country of the Pointed Firs feels to me today like a nostalgic journey back to my roots and simultaneously an almost exotic bit of armchair travel. Maine is a unique place. I don't think I fully realised that until I'd left it. And Sarah Orne Jewett led me to realise something quite new about the place, something I wouldn't have spotted on my own. It's all about perspective.

The book hasn't much of a plot. The narrator is a middle-aged lady who arrives in June in the fictional mid-coast town of Dunnet Landing. She rents a room in the home of Mrs. Todd, a slightly older widow and the town's herbalist. We don't know the narrator's name, where she's come from, or why she's come -- either at the beginning of the story or the end of it -- but we tag along with her as she socialises with the locals at tea and family gatherings. At the end of summer (like most tourists), she sadly boards the boat and departs. The book was published in 1910, so every aspect of this lady's rambling was leisurely: She strolls about collecting herbs with Mrs. Todd, they row and sail a dory to Green Island to visit Mrs. Todd's mother, an elderly white horse draws them to a family reunion. Basically, the story is a slightly animated version of N.C. Wyeth's painting. Today I can embrace the idea that places and novels can be profoundly beautiful in the absence of dramatic action.

Jewett had a fine ear for the Maine dialect. Mainers aren't a loquacious lot. Few words, oblique references and understatements galore are their trademarks.  "Breakfast is served" might pass muster in Boston, but it's a tad abrupt in Maine. Mrs. Todd mentions to her boarder, "I guess what breakfast you'll want's about ready now."  One can read into this, I wouldn't presume to say what breakfast you might want, nor exactly when you might want it, but my best effort should be ready sometime shortly if it suits you.

Whether it's breakfast or death, Mainers are even-keeled. The narrator timidly mentions the recent funeral of much-loved Mrs. Begg. Her companion, a retired sea captain, speaks of his neighbour's demise as if she'd simply sneaked out early from a church supper. "She has gone," said the captain,—"very easy at the last, I was informed; she slipped away as if she were glad of the opportunity."

Jewett also portrays well the cooperation and interdependence among the villagers. They barter, share, trade, give and receive. They garden, fish, and forage. Mrs. Todd's knowledge of herbs is such that the local doctor treats her as a colleague, and she is for all intents and purposes the village pharmacist. Throughout the book she harvests barks, leaves, berries and roots; she knows where the all the best specimens grow.
With most remedies the purchaser was allowed to depart unadmonished from the kitchen, Mrs. Todd being a wise saver of steps; but with certain vials she gave cautions, standing in the doorway, and there were other doses which had to be accompanied on their healing way as far as the gate, while she muttered long chapters of directions, and kept up an air of secrecy and importance to the last. It may not have been only the common aids of humanity with which she tried to cope; it seemed sometimes as if love and hate and jealousy and adverse winds at sea might also find their proper remedies among the curious wild-looking plants in Mrs. Todd's garden.

Mainers divide people into two categories:  A local is a person born in the state; all others are said to be from away. Whether you were born in New Hampshire or Nepal is of no matter. You are from away, and you will never be a local, even if your parents settled in Maine two weeks after your birth. Many locals don't stray far from their hometowns; there were people in my village who viewed a trip to Portland, 60 miles away, as an expedition, so you can understand why someone from Vermont might seem alien. I was from away, and even as a child I found the xenophobia suffocating. Thanks to Sarah Orne Jewett, I now grasp that it wasn't always this way. Coastal Mainers got stuck in the mudflats when the glory days of shipping came to an end. My own town was famous for building five-masted schooners, but that industry died out over half a century before I arrived, and the locals' horizons seem to have contracted to their own county after that.

Perspective is what they've lost. Jewett's old sea-captain grumbles that one can't have much of a world-view if one never leaves home.
He waved his hand toward the village below. "In that handful of houses they fancy that they comprehend the universe... I view it, in addition, that a community narrows down and grows dreadful ignorant when it is shut up to its own affairs, and gets no knowledge of the outside world except from a cheap, unprincipled newspaper.
In the old days, a good part o' the best men here knew a hundred ports and something of the way folks lived in them. They saw the world for themselves, and like's not their wives and children saw it with them. They may not have had the best of knowledge to carry with 'em sight-seein', but they were some acquainted with foreign lands an' their laws, an' could see outside the battle for town clerk here in Dunnet; they got some sense o' proportion. Yes, they lived more dignified, and their houses were better within an' without."
It's tempting to say that living in Malaysia has allowed me the perspective to love Maine as unabashedly as the lady visitor to Dunnet, but I haven't lost sight of the fact that this is fiction. The narrator is, after all, a summer tourist with all that implies. On the other hand, when it comes to being bowled over by the beauty of a place, the tourist's perspective is the one to have.

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