Storytelling has long been part of the human experience. Along with the need to express ourselves, is the need to make sense of our environment and often, we do that by telling stories. It is by doing so, that our minds take flight and it is free to imagine what could be. This ability to mythologize and to story tell I dare say, is what distinguishes us, humans, from all the rest of the animal species. And it is this theme which is at the heart of Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones.
It is the story of young Matilda growing up in a small island in the Pacific at a time when civil war rages. Due to the war, the island is blockaded and caught in the crossfire between the rebels and the soldiers of the mainland. The islanders’ life is reduced to the barest minimum in order to survive. One day however, all the school age children are summoned back to school by Mr. Watts, the lone remaining white resident of the island. He has always been a figure of interest, even mystery to the people of the island and now he has decided to become the children’s teacher. He has decided to teach them Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. Interspersed with Great Expectations are various lessons given by the different members of the community, brought to the classroom by Mr. Watts. And so, along with learning about Pip’s adventures, the children learn various things such as how predict the weather from the behavior of crabs. So begins the children’s introduction to a bigger world, one of which is very different and far from their island life. More importantly, they learn independent thought. Despite her mother’s displeasure at the lessons she’s receiving from Mr. Watts, Matilda’s sets out to learn as much as she can. Mr. Watt’s lessons however, ultimately lead to a dangerous mix up of identities that lead to a devastating conclusion.
As Matilda’s mother points out, “stories have a job to do.” And in tackling this theme in his book, Jones shows us exactly how powerful stories can be. In his retelling of Great Expectations, Mr. Watts enabled the children, and especially the protagonist to dream of a different life. It has literally opened their minds to a different way of thinking and more than being escapist fare, it has enabled them to look with new eyes at themselves. When he is asked to tell his own story, he gives them back a retelling of all the stories, his and that of the villagers. And while he and the other islanders may be at the mercy of the ravages of war, their minds and spirits are free to roam and discover. Yes, stories have a job to do and this is a lesson that needs reminding from time to time. And who among us will deny having learned a thing or two from the stories in our life?
It is a simple story that resonates with the reader long after turning the last page. It is to the author’s credit that the narrative flows seamlessly with the prose carrying itself without recourse to much literary tricks. The story tells itself. In the end, it is more than enough.