Best Stories of Sarah Orne Jewett, edited by Waugh, Greenberg & Donovan

What terrific stories! As Josephine Donovan points out in her introduction, Jewett is the bridge between the American “local color” writers such as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Rose Terry, and the European realists, such as Flaubert, Tolstoy, Sterne and George Sand. Inspired by Stowe’s novel, The Pearl of Orr’s Island, Jewett sets her own stories in her native Maine, realistically capturing the flavor of life in the rural areas and small towns.

Many of these stories feature characters who are intensely individual, this from a time when towns and farms were more isolated. As Storm Jameson says of her own native Whitby, “Isolation . . . bred, in counterweight to its benefits, a crop of eccentrics, harmless fools, misers, house devils, despots, male and some female . . .” Jewett explores these folks in seemingly simple stories that pack a huge emotional punch. Most of the stories feature women and explore issues of power and powerlessness. “The Flight of Betsey Lane” describes three women in the local poor-house, many of whose residents only come there for the winter months: “far from lamenting the fact that they were town charges, they rather liked the change and excitement of a winter residence on the poor-farm.” The story captures the shifting currents of friendship between the three, their tolerance of each other’s eccentricities, their care for each other, their secrets.

In “Going to Shrewsbury”, the narrator meets up with an elderly countrywoman taking her first-ever train journey. Mrs. Peet has been tricked out of the small farm where she and her now-deceased husband had scraped a living for forty-five years and is on her way to live with a niece who doesn’t seem eager to have her. The mix of emotions—sadness, excitement, loneliness—struck me as genuine, reminding me of elderly parents of a friend who recently moved here, far from their friends and former life, in order to spend their last years near their children. At one point, Mrs. Peet says, ” ‘It may divert me, but it won’t be home. You might as well set out one o’ my old apple-trees on the beach, so ‘t could see the waves come in . . .'”

One area where Jewett excels is capturing the rhythms of speech without the excessive use of dialect that can be so annoying. She characterises her people not just through their speech and actions, but by how others in their small communities react to them and by small details of their clothing, habits, or homes. For example, “The Only Rose” begins “Just where the village abruptly ended, and the green mowing fields began, stood Mrs. Bickford’s house, looking down the road with all its windows, and topped by two prim chimneys that stood up like ears.”

Other stories are more meditative, even lyrical, descriptions of the place. Jewett’s familiarity with native plants and appreciation of nature inform stories like “An Autumn Holiday” and “A Bit of Shore Life”. These are also examples of the “village sketch” format developed by Mary Russell Mitford, where a narrator wanders through her village describing birds and plants and conversing with the unconventional people she meets. Perhaps the most famous story here is “A White Heron” in which a young girl is torn between devotion to the bird and a desire to help the young man who wants to shoot and stuff it to add to his collection.

As it happens, I had never read anything by this well-known author of the late 19th century, not even her most famous book, The Country of the Pointed Firs. I came across her name again last year when I was reading Willa Cather, for Jewett was a mentor for Cather and was much appreciated by the younger writer who named The Country of the Pointed Firs one of the three works of American literature that would be classics, the others being Huckleberry Finn and The Scarlet Letter.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the influence of place on writers, even as our places become more homogenized. Jewett’s writing has the grit and get-on-with-it nature of Maine’s rocky, stubborn land. Her work has the stripped-down barrenness of Maine’s long snowbound winter, the darkness of its lonely woods, and the astringent sweetness of its spring. I recommend these stories and will be looking for more of her work.

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