To say that Sarah Orne Jewett is a beautiful word crafter would be an understatement. As an example, Hannah, an elderly spinster in the short story, "A Bit of Shore Life," describes her deceased mother, "I should have liked to kep' her if she'd lived to be a hundred, but I don't wish her back. She'd had considerable many strokes, and she couldn't help herself much of any. She'd got to be rising eighty, and her mind was a good deal broke." "A Bit of Shore Life" is one of seven short stories written in the late 1800's by Miss Jewett and compiled into a wonderful book, Old Friends and New (1879).
In 1993 I was gifted a book of nature prose and poetry by women. I read my way through the works and when I came to A White Heron (1886) by Sara Orne Jewett, I fell in love. I've continued to read her stories and was pleasantly surprised to recently find Old Friends and New.
Miss Jewett was said to believe in subjects that "teased the mind" and so chose to tell tales of the rural fisherman and farmers who inhabited the Atlantic seacoast area of southeastern Maine. A native of New Breton Maine, she knew firsthand how these tough Northeasterners lived. Again in "A Bit of Shore Life," the female narrator of the story remarks, "I think the life in me must be next of kin to the life of the sea, for it is drawn toward it strangely, as a little drop of quicksilver grows uneasy just out to reach of a greater one." I too live by the sea, and as I read these stories I feel as though Jewett's beautifully crafted words wrap me in a warm blanket of storytelling.
The lead roles most often fall to women of all ages. These are strong characters, smart, introspective and capable of surviving, often while their men are off to sea. I suspect they are a lot like Miss Jewett. Willa Cather, a Pulitzer Prize winning author, gladly called Miss Jewett a writing mentor and good friend, and feminist writing critics over the years have applauded her descriptions of the lives and voices of women in the 1800's.
In the story, "A Lost Lover," an elderly spinster who spends her life pining for a lover lost at sea finds out that her sailor survived but has lived his days in destitution and dereliction. This realization causes her to look again at the value of living her life in his shadow.
"Miss Sydney's Flowers" is a touching tale about an elderly introverted woman who withdraws even as the city grows up around her family home. When a new road is built close to the room where her flower conservatory is located, she becomes upset. The flowers attract the attention of the townsfolk, and many make a special effort to walk past. Miss Sydney begins to look outward, and eventually ventures outside where she meets new people and renews past friendships. She realizes that the new road and bright flowers have brought her back to life.
These stories, along with "The Late Supper," "A Sorrowful Guest," "Mr. Bruce," and "Lady Ferry" share the title's theme of old and new friends. I enjoyed these life tales, some magically simple, all reminding me of the value of trusting in life.
Sarah Orne Jewett (September 3, 1849-June 24, 1909) from South Berwick Maine, was an American novelist, short story writer and poet, best known for her local color works set along or near the southern seacoast of Maine.
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