Sarah Orne Jewett: “The Country of the Pointed Firs”

See image credit below.

See image credit below.

Sweet-brier and sweet-mary, balm and sage and borage and mint – such are the herbs that grow in Mrs. Almira Todd’s cottage garden. The herbalist and healer for the Maine coastal town of Dunnet Landing, Mrs. Todd is the focal character of Sarah Orne Jewett’s 1896 novel, The Country of the Pointed Firs.

The book tells the story of a writer from the city who spends her summers in the old whaling village. She rents a room from Mrs. Todd and thus comes to know the villagers who come to Mrs. Todd for herbs and herbal remedies.

The Country of the Pointed Firs is a quiet, enchanting book, on my list of top five books of all time. (Stay tuned to learn about other books that make the cut!) An early description of Mrs. Todd gives a clue to the novel’s unconventional structure:

[Mrs. Todd] stood in the centre of a braided rug, and its rings of black and gray seemed to circle about her feet in the dim light. Her height and massiveness in the low room gave her the look of a huge sibyl, while the strange fragrance of the mysterious herb blew in from the little garden.

Standing at the center of the braided rug, Mrs. Todd draws the narrator into her life. At the center of the novel, Mrs. Todd takes the narrator to Green Island to visit her mother and bachelor brother.

While there, Mrs. Todd and the narrator walk to a private, secluded spot. There, in this quiet glen where the two gather pennyroyal, an herb known for its abortive properties, Mrs. Todd shares intimate details of her life, fully welcoming the narrator into her secret world.

Intrigued by the pennyroyal and the other herbs in the book? Learn about their medicinal properties in “A Jewett Pharmacopeia.”

If you buy this book (you’ll definitely want to have this gem in your collection!), make sure you order a version that begins with “The Return” and ends with “The Backward View,” such as this edition, which restores the original 1861 edition as Jewett published it. While you wait for your print copy to arrive, you might want to access a free copy here.

And though it’s a far cry from Mrs. Todd’s cottage in The Country of the Pointed Firs, you might want to take a virtual tour of Jewett’s house in South Berwick, Maine.

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Listen as I read a 7-minute excerpt from the chapter titled “Where the Pennyroyal Grow.”

Image credit: This image is in the public domain.