"Tomorrow," I told my mum, "we meet Mr. Dickens."
She stopped sweeping and thought. "That's a white man's name." She shook her head and spat out the door. "No. You heard wrong, Matilda. Pop Eye is the last white man. There is no other."
"Mr. Watts says there is."
I had heard Mr. Watts speak. I had heard him say he would always be honest with us kids. If he said we were to meet Mr. Dickens, then I felt sure that we would. I was looking forward to seeing another white man. It never occurred to me to ask where this Mr. Dickens had been hiding himself. But then I had no reason to doubt Mr. Watts' word.
My mum must have reconsidered overnight, because next morning when I ran off to school she called me back.
"This Mr. Dickens, Matilda--if you get the chance, why don't you ask him to fix the generator."
Mr. Watts is the only white man left on the island of Bougainville in the South Pacific when the civil war begins, and with the teachers having fled he assumes the role as sole instructor for the children of the island. Resources being what they are in Bougainville (somewhere along the lines of the New York City school system), Mr. Watts has very little to offer, except one thing: he reads to the children aloud every day from an old battered copy of Great Expectations.
But that is enough for young Matilda, the narrator, who is captivated by the story of Pip and his rags-to-riches story. There is something exotic in it--the strangeness of the British culture, the immensity of Victorian London--but also something familiar. The way that Pip grows up in the Marshes without a father reminds her of her own situation, her own father far away in Australia as long as she can remember. As life becomes more chaotic on the island, and the population is caught between the native rebel "rambos" and the "redskins," Great Expectations provides something for Matilda to hold onto amidst the madness of war.
One day Matilda, following the local tradition of writing the names of relatives in the sand (as some sort of prayer? I'm not totally clear), writes PIP on the beach. Not only does this anger her mother, who is pious and highly suspicious of Mr. Watts' lessons on Great Expectations, but it ultimately brings about great tragedy when a redskin soldier sees the name on the beach and demands to have Pip brought forward, thinking it the name of a hiding rebel. With the book caught in a house burnt down by the redskins, Mr. Watts has no choice but to admit to being Pip. Then, as the islanders wait for the redskins to return for what will certainly be the last days of their community, Mr. Watts gathers those who remain on the beach and begins to tell a story that is one part Great Expectations, one part the story of his own life, and one part the tales and folk wisdom of the island. In this way Great Expectations is transformed not just for another culture, but for a specific and singular time and place. Tragedy remains un-averted, but Mr. Watts' lasting legacy is the creation of a communal space that exists beyond physical borders, where the spirit of the community lives on after its destruction.
I bought Mister Pip on the recommendation of complete-review.com, a pretty good book review site which had it as one of the highest recommended books in its index. It's not as good as all that, but it's pretty good. I sat next to a goofy high school sophomore on a plane who read it for class and said he liked it quite a bit; then he asked me if I had "heard of a book called To Kill a Mockingbird." I therefore give this book the Goofy Teenager stamp of approval.