The Books our friends bring to us: Kim and The Country of the Pointed Firs
I meet Kim for coffee once a month, driving up the back roads to Mount Vernon, slowing down for chickens and Amish buggies on Route 586, traveling up hills and ’round curves to a beloved former hometown. There are a couple of different back road routes to Mount V; there is no interstate route, and the drive is always a calming thing, a detour off the hectic highway.
And then: to visit with Kim, who is almost just my age, a scant two months younger; we graduated from far-apart high schools the same year, and encountered fads and fashions and challenges, heard our countercultural sirens, all in the same era. We traveled different paths in our young woman years, although some of the things we experienced were very similar. Life brought us together–oh, ten years ago? maybe twelve?– in the radical hospitality of a hot meals program. We connected in our firm belief in the dignity of the diners; we cemented our bonds through a fast friendship with giving young Phillip, who let us walk a way with him as he died, with warmth and fire and care for others, from AIDs.
Kim is a wordy woman; I am too, and we share, in large part, the same essential vocabulary. We love many of the same writers, read many of the same books. We both determine to eat as locally as possible. We both want, in whatever small ways we can achieve it, to leave the world a little better for our passing through it.
I never had a sister, and,–although brothers are certainly lovely beings– I always felt the lack. Life, though, has gifted me, at every age and stage, with sisters of the heart, as opposed to sisters of the blood. Kim is one of those people.
So when Kim recommends a book to me, I read the book.
I started this blog to create the structure, impose the discipline, to read the books accumulating on my shelves–the someday when I have time books. I am still committed to that quest. But–when a dear one recommends a book, I believe there’s call to listen. This person who knows me so well,- this person whom I respect and love,- this person whose opinion is important, sees reason for me to read this book. It’s time to set the dusty shelved books aside and open the volume, fat or slender, hard covered or paperback, fiction or fact-based–whatever.
There is discovery to be encountered; the book itself, of course, the voice within, and then the chance to see and hear through the eyes and ears of the recommender.
The last time we had coffee, Kim slid Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of The Pointed Firs across the table, and I slipped it into my bag.
The narrator in The Country of the Pointed Firs is a writer, a woman working on a project. She had visited a small coastal Maine town a few years back, and she had been drawn, strongly, to the place and the folk. It’s the place she chooses to complete her project; she is seeking solitude and quiet, but she winds up renting from the herbalist Mrs. Todd.
The narrator is soon so inexorably drawn into Mrs. Todd’s sociable life that she must rent the school room as a working space. At Mrs. Todd’s guest house, there is always a distraction.
The book, written in 1896, takes place over the course of one summer. No one dies in the story, no jewels are stolen, no battered wife breaks free of her overbearing spouse, no betrayal bursts through the calm surface of everyday waters. The only explosion is from fireworks at a country celebration.
But still, The Country of the Pointed Firs is extraordinary.
It’s extraordinary because of its calm acceptance that a woman would have the right and the wherewithal, all on her own, to find a place and do her writing, unapologetic and determined. This, stated without explanation, in 1896–while even today, women still apologize for not being home; they explain the necessity of the summer sojourn; they beg, sometimes still, for understanding.
It’s extraordinary in its unsentimental but vivid portrayal of the unfolding of a friendship–a friendship between very different women who find common ground; their parting at the end is not so easy.
It’s extraordinary in its spare and beautiful language, in the images it creates, in the power it gives me as reader to decide the importance, the implications, of what’s being told. I lived for a while in the world Jewett created, went to the island with her characters, enjoyed the cool Maine summer and the salty sea air.
And then of course, I tried to see the book from Kim’s vantage. I have been a teacher, mostly, a writer on the side and for nurture of myself; Kim has boldly lived her life as a purveyor of the written word. This has taken her to many places; she has met many people and heard many stories. She has been, alone of all the people I have met, an amanuensis–the caretaker of the words of another brilliant writer. Kim is someone who had the depth of understanding to be trusted with that charge.
Kim, I think, could have been the narrator, quietly making her way to a new town, finding that, in her understated way, in the course of ninety days she had been woven into its fabric. Finding, in fact, that her leaving left a wounded hole in the community cloth.
I realize I don’t know much about Sarah Orne Jewett; the book’s intro gives me a few spare details. Daughter of a doctor; born in Maine and died in Maine, 1849-1909. A writer from birth, published at 19, befriended by William Dean Howells, never married. I look her up online.
At http://www.womenwriters.net, I discover that Jewett had “…an independent childhood followed by an unconventional womanhood.” Growing up, it said, she was “..fed on words” (a lovely image); that feeding developed the appetite that shaped her writer’s life.
She never married nor had children, but she had what they called a “Boston marriage’–a firm, enduring friendship with another talented woman. The author cautions against assuming anything about Jewett’s sexuality; in the Victorian era, she writes, women spoke of dear friends in loving, almost effusive, terms, and they often connected as lifelong companions. Sometimes, of course, the relationship had a physical component, but often not. Which was the case for Jewett seems unclear; knowing does not seem, to me, important.
Much more important–and much more tragic–was that, on September 3, 1902, Sarah Orne Jewett was riding in a carriage when the horse stumbled. Jewett was thrown from the carriage; she suffered head and neck injuries. For the rest of her life,–the next seven years,–she had pain and dizziness. She could not write.
At the Sarah Orne Jewett Project (www.public.coe.edu/~theller/soj/sj-index.htm), all of her published works are gathered, along with a biography, literary criticism, and the biography and collected works of her companion. Although critics have said in the past that Jewett’s work is plot-deficient, modern readers seem to be re-thinking that, and renewed appreciation bubbles up.
Tomorrow is–I hope–a coffee day, and I look forward to talking with Kim about Sarah Orne Jewett. The reading and the research have given me questions. What’s important in a work of fiction? Does the climactic moment, the denouement, need to be more pronounced, more cataclysmic, than that of In the Country of Pointed Firs to be valid or considered worthwhile? When is the simple story of a surprise summer friendship a piece of great fiction instead of a beachy read? What does Kim think, I wonder?
Happy for the reading, I look forward to finding out.