Poor Joanna

Maine island, photographed by Matt Barnard
Matt Barnard | Pexels
By Susan Hand Shetterly

Everyone carries within them the sense of an island, a part of them that is separate from the whole. When I first moved to Maine and lived in a cabin not far from the shore, I read The Country of the Pointed Firs, by Sarah Orne Jewett. Although it spoke to a time long past, I found it helpful. She taught me about the manner and wit of my neighbors. She taught me something of how to live in a small, traditional Down East town. But within Jewett’s story of intricate and complicated village life is another story, of extreme solitude. It’s about a woman named Joanna, who, when deceived by her lover, sets sail for Shell Heap Island and never returns — a peculiar response to a man, whom Jewett says through one of her characters was a “shifty-eyed, coaxing sort of man.” Joanna says she felt such wrath and shame and guilt, she was done with the world.

Yet what I took from Joanna’s story was not her hurt but her strange, pure courage. What I carried with me in the years that followed — years of raising children, tending a big garden, and trying to make ends meet — was the story of a woman who went away to live alone. My life was too busy, and sometimes, driving from one place to another, I’d glance across the bay to an island set against the horizon and remember Joanna and her tidy little garden, her spare, neat cabin, and her solitary walks around the strict perimeters of her world. Not that I wanted the same for myself forever, but maybe for a day or two, maybe a week, and then I would return to those I loved, to the life I loved. Other women who read Jewett’s book have told me they felt the same. Joanna may have been odd, but that oddness spoke to them.

What I took from Joanna’s story was not her hurt but her strange, pure courage.

What I think I see, rereading the story today, is that the people of the mainland, the people who cared about Joanna, thought of her as I had. She became a template for a secret part of them that sometimes dreamed of loosening the bonds of civic life to live alone in a place they glimpsed when out fishing or sailing down the coast. The women of the village discussed Joanna over their knitting. Couples, tucking in for the night as the darkness roared with wind and snow, worried about her.

They left her gifts at the island cove: food from mainland farms, laying hens and chicks to raise, and other practical things. When they sailed by again, they’d see she had picked up whatever they had set there. I think of these offerings and her silent acceptance of them as a conversation between the contrary aspects of who we are as individuals. On the mainland, Joanna might have married, settled in, become much like everyone else: hardworking and neighborly. Instead, she became a beacon, beamed across the water to the main, reminding her townsfolk that each of us carries a particular and complicated light within.

The narrator, who has heard this story from two of the townspeople, travels to the island and walks it alone to find Joanna’s gravestone, years after her death. The cabin is gone, the garden has grown up, subsumed by wild grass and sedge. Joanna’s island had become a pilgrimage for those who thought that their own lives might reflect something of hers, and the village took her story for its own, enfolding it into all the other stories it told about itself, as if she’d never left.