The world were a great mistake

Topic Sentence #9

Dear reader,

(Welcome to new readers from Sarah Avenir/&yet! What we do here is talk about one sentence from one book, every few weeks—so that we get better at reading and writing. Pull up an armchair and enjoy your stay.)

Today’s topic sentence:

There was a patient look on the old man’s face, as if the world were a great mistake and he had nobody with whom to speak his own language or find companionship.

This sentence is from The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett, part of a list I’m cultivating in my head of “Public Domain Books Worth Reading, Besides the Usual Suspects Like Austen and Co”. I found it through the recommendation of Ursula K. LeGuin—who praises its “quietly powerful rhythms”. And it’s easy to see it as an antecedent of LeGuin—with its depictions of pastoral life that magnify the inner workings of the characters, albeit without the wizards strolling through.

Its also reminiscent of The Hills is Lonely (a previous recommendation), although less comedic: both feature a female narrator, with no attachments moving to a quiet community, and with her, we discover the slow joy of understanding the people there. There is also a thorough empathy in both of those books, where people are not reduced to object lessons, or mechanisms for a plot, but depicted as, well, people.

As for our topic sentence, the “old man” in question is Captain Littlepage, a retired sailor with stories and nobody to tell them to. It’s a sentence that gains its force from the simile in its second half; there are many ways to describe patience, and I’m not sure I could ever have crafted this one.

In part, it’s a microcosm of the book as a whole—the yearning of quiet people to find someone who speaks their language, to find companionship. But it’s also a simile that causes us to reread the sentence, and reconsider the character—given this great loneliness, this “great mistake”, the Captain is not angry, or frustrated, but instead faces it with a stoic patience.


Every six months or so, we go to a small beach town called Crescent Head, five hours north of Sydney, where we live. It’s an easy place to visit, with brilliant white sand, a beach-creek made for floating down, and the kind of sea breeze that picks up and away at your worries. It’s a place we’ve gone to for years, a place out of the usual rhythms, a place for reflection.

The Country of the Pointed Firs reminds me of that place—as a book, its a place you want to spend time in, and revisit again. And in doing so, to reflect on the place you’ve come from, and what it took for you to get there.

Speaking my own language,

Guan