Mothers are infrequently the prominent characters in novels. They seem to be unassuming and in the background, if they are mentioned at all. Because of their scarcity I started looking for them. When there is a likable mother on a page she has my full attention, no matter how quiet a person she is.
Last summer I returned to Maine – not to the physical place (although that would have been lovely) but the Maine of Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs - a calm story told in first-person.
The setting is an 1880s fishing village. Perhaps the only conflict is the reality that lies in the shadow of everyone’s minds; that summer, so long in coming, would be so soon to leave. The plot, if it could be said to be one, meanders. Suspense isn’t what makes the pages turn. Rather, it is pure pleasure of being there. On her summer holiday, the young woman who narrates the story has deepening connections with the local characters. She finds something interesting about each person she meets. As she savors the sounds and sites around her, I savor them with her.
I remember how steep a hike can be along the rocky coastline. I can recall the shy whippoorwill’s soft call in the night as I lay awake. I know the scent of the salt sea air and see the bright sunlight on the wind-rippled water of the harbor. And I’ve met some idiosyncratic backwoods Mainers. And so the story sets my mind easily to wandering.
A Comfortable Hostess
The young woman narrator rooms in the white clapboard house of Mrs. Todd, an herbalist-widow who knows all the commonplace news of the village and likes to talk about it. One day, when the tide is right, Mrs. Todd puts up a small sail, and with her boarder, is wind-driven to Green Island. There Mrs. Todd introduces her new friend to her mother, Mrs. Blackett, an islander in her eighties. Any gentlewoman would like her I suppose, as much as her visitor does.
Oh, to be as comfortable a hostess as Mrs. Blackett. If I were as self-forgetful in my hospitality I’d suffer less nervous tension, I’m sure. Sarah Jewett says:
Her hospitality was something exquisite; she had the gift which so many women lack, of being able to make themselves and their houses 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 highest gift of heaven, a perfect self-forgetfullness.
A Place of Peace
After a chat in Mrs. Blackett's front parlor, after a stroll around some of the island with Mrs. Todd to glean the herb pennyroyal, after a tasty fish supper, it was near the time the visitor was to give her farewell. The young woman stands at Mrs. Blakett’s bedroom door and peeks in. She sees a pink and white quilt on the bed and hears:
“Come right in, dear,” [Mrs. B.] said. “I want you to set down in my old quilted rockn’chair there by the window; you’ll say it’s the prettiest view in the house. I set there a good deal to rest me and when I want to read.”
There was a worn red Bible on the lightstand, and Mrs. Blackett’s heavy silver-bowed glasses; her thimble was on the narrow window-ledge, and folded carefully on the table was a thick striped cotton shirt that she was making for her son. Those dear old fingers and their loving stitches, that heart which had made the most of everything that needed love! Here was the real home, the heart of the old house on Green Island! I sat in the rocking chair, and felt that is was a place of peace, the little brown bedroom, and the quiet outlook upon field and sea and sky.
It takes a special ability with a pen to affectionately write of the simplest things in life, and get readers to appreciate them. Perhaps this is why Sarah Orne Jewett’s, The Country of the Pointed Firs hasn't gone out-of-print for more than 100 years.
You probably will not see it on a local library’s recommended summer-reading-list. Perhaps it is too quiet a book. Gentle souls who find it, however, keep it on a shelf next to their classic novels to read it again in other summers. I enjoyed the first half of the story more than the last half. Nevertheless, I was glad I read to the end to get the whole picture.
Do you look for likable mothers? I’ve come across more I could share with you in future.
Because The Country of the Pointed Firs is public domain I took the liberty to quote these choice nuggets by whole paragraphs.
Mother Carey’s Chickens is a book I wrote about on this blog some years earlier. It has a likable mother as the central character. A click will bring you to it.
Most of the photographs of Maine were taken by my daughter. The photograph of Dean and I, taken by a good friend and Mainer, shows Rockland Harbor in the background. What a steep climb we took that day at summer's close. Has it really been ten years? Behind us are wild blueberries among the rocks.
Kim Huitt of Alaska, sent me a photograph of her newly finished Lavender Strawberry Sachets. I was touched by her placement of them atop Pocketful of Pinecones. How pretty they look spilling over the teacup. I was given permission to share her photo with you. Thank you, Kim.
Until next time,