Last time I was at this gorgeous wilderness spot I was reading City of Girls (about show girls in 1940 NYC), and it was totally anachronistic and wrong for the place. I carefully wanted to avoid that, so I chose this classic by a Maine author, to more closely approximate the mood of the locale. This worked well, even though it is of coastal Maine, and not inland as I was.
I had heard it said that if one could pick three American books which “have the possibility of a long, long life” the obvious choices would be The Scarlet Letter, Huckleberry Finn, and The Country of the Pointed Firs. Not having read it, this perspective put this book on my radar.
Recently a blog reader shared this quote from C.S. Lewis with me too,”It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.” Having read a lot of modern stuff lately, I was due for an old one. Apparently, this author was Willa Cather’s mentor, so after finding this classic of Maine, written in 1896, at a library sale, it jumped in my bag for the trip.
This book is mostly character sketches of coastal Maine folks over a century ago. The author is a very perceptive, keen observer of human nature, which is what makes this book quietly engrossing. It never makes a big splash, but accrues slowly and without fanfare. I marked the following bits both to give you the flavor of the book, and for my reference:
- “Her hospitality was something exquisite; she had gifts which so many women lack, of being able to make themselves and their homes belong entirely to a guest’s pleasure, – that charming surrender for the moment of themselves and whatever belongs to them, so that they make a part of one’s own life that can never be forgotten. Tact is after all a kind of mind-reading, 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, highest gift of heaven, a perfect self-forgetfulness.”
- “In these days the young folks is all copy-cats, ‘fraid to death they won’t be all just alike; as for the old folks, they pray for the advantage o’ bein’ a little different.”
- “Nathan didn’t make the habit of always opposin’, like some men.”
- “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 thousands of seeds that die, the unused provision of every sort. The reserve force of society grows more and more amazing to one’s thought.”
- “I saw that Mrs. Todd’s broad shoulders began to shake. ‘There was good singers there; yes, there was excellent singers,’ she agreed heartily, putting down her teacup, ‘but I chanced to drift alongside Mis’ Peter Bowden o’ Great Bay, an’ I couldn’t help thinkin’ if she was as far out o’ town as she was out o’ tune, she wouldn’t get back in a day.'”
- “A man’s house is really but his larger body, and expresses in a way his nature and character.”
- “The old widower sat with his head bowed over his knitting, as if he were hastily shortening the very thread of time.”
- “It was quietly mortifying to find how strong the habit of idle speech may become in one’s self. One need not always be saying something in this noisy world.”
- “Then she smiled at me, a smile of noble patience, of uncomprehended sacrifice, which I can never forget.
- “Saint Teresa says that the true proficiency of the soul is not in much thinking, but in much loving.”
The Country of the Pointed Firs is a straight-forward novel, looking at simple lives and exploring universal themes, in a long ago beautiful place. My only quibble with this book is that she kept restating how large Mrs. Todd was, and as a larger woman myself, I felt it a glaringly unnecessary repetition! Otherwise, this little volume is a soft jewel. I recommend it and give it five stars.