is a coming-of-age narrative by award-winning author Lloyd Jones. The story takes place in Papua New Guinea, on the island of Bougainville, and follows the life events of a precocious thirteen-year-old girl, Matilda Laimo. Though the story itself is fiction, the narrative is set during the island nation’s historic civil war which took place in 1991. Jones was actually a journalist in Bougainville during the ten-year-long war, so speaks from firsthand experience of the island’s perils.
The civil war has come about due to a dispute between the mainland Papua New Guinea government and the island of Bougainville, an island that is rich with gold and copper resources, and that is more similar to the Solomon Islands than Papua New Guinea. Matilda lives on the island in a primitive village of about sixty inhabitants. She lives a peaceful existence in her village, and has come to refer to the invading forces as “redskins.” By Matilda referring to the invading government forces as “redskins,” the narrative sets up the dichotomy
between Matilda, who is black, and these outside forces who are upending her village’s peaceful way of life.Though set during the civil war, Matilda is barely aware of the tension and ongoing war taking shape around her at the outset. As the narrative continues, however, she, as well as the rest of her friends and family, are thrust into the brutal civil war with devastating results.
When the civil war begins, the mainland blockades the island, thus upsetting the village’s usual way of life. Though the village obtains most of its foodstuffs from the surrounding jungle and ocean, the blockade causes all of the white inhabitants to leave on the last boat off the island. This departure means that the teachers, missionaries and even the doctor leave the village. The only white man that remains is Mr. Watts, a recluse married to an island woman. Though the village is simple, the effects of the blockade are soon felt. Supplies grow scarce and eventually disappear altogether. Canned food, gasoline and medicine all dwindle away. As the doctor has left as well, babies soon begin dying again from malaria. The children, with no teachers, roam the island as they did thousands of years prior. Indeed, the village and island itself slowly revert to an earlier way of life without modern encroachments.
The narrative’s title comes from the main plot of the novel. Mr. Watts, the reclusive white man who has remained on the island, decides to reopen the village’s schoolroom. By doing so, he becomes the de facto teacher. Mr. Watts begins teaching the children by reading out loud from Great Expectations
, one of Charles Dickens’ greatest works. The children all fall in love with the story, especially with Dickens’ main character, Pip. Matilda seems to take Mister Pip’s story and journey to heart more than the other children. Matilda’s mother, however, as well as many of the villagers, are skeptical about this newfound love of Pip. In time, however, the villagers too come to listen to Mr. Watts and the fascinating tale of Mister Pip. In this way, the village once again comes together, bound by the power of literature.
Matilda’s love of Mister Pip is so profound, especially given her impoverished circumstances on the island during war, that she goes as far as to build an oceanfront shrine to Mister Pip. Though seemingly an innocuous act, during a civil war, it has disastrous consequences for both Matilda and the village inhabitants. The shrine is spotted from the air by helicopters and the “redskins” mistake this act as an homage to a hidden rebel leader. Violence descends upon the village, with the most inhumane acts being carried out by the invading forces based on the assumption that Mister Pip is actually a rebel leader.
Many critics have pointed out that the extreme violence in Mister Pip
which results from Matilda’s actions seems unnecessary, and comes off as shocking, given the subject matter. Though heartbreaking, Jones’s use of violence reminds the reader that Matilda and her village are nonetheless caught up in the violence and stigma of war. It is too easy to get lost in the pages of literature and forget real life applications. Unlike Mister Pip, Matilda’s story is not idealism. The realism
of war makes itself known, despite the village’s attempt at healing through community and literature. Yet the message is clear even through the bloodshed and inhumanity: literature has the power to bring people together. It has the power to transport people to other places, to connect people with different views and, perhaps most importantly, to heal what was once thought irreparable.
Jones witnessed the atrocities of the civil war firsthand. It was a war that reportedly cost the lives of more than eleven percent of the island’s inhabitants. Perhaps most heartbreaking for Jones was that the world, for the most part, new nothing of these atrocities. Jones’ take on the violence, as well as his use of beautiful, lyrical prose to render Matilda’s world all the more vivid is a testament to the human drive to remember, to honor and to heal through both language and the written word. Jones tunes his moral compass so that morality becomes the main theme of the novel. By reading this narrative and taking it to heart, the reader also becomes complicit in upholding the world’s morality alongside Jones, and is reminded that morality is not as simple as turning a page or putting a book down when convenient.