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"There Is No Frigate Like A Book"
on August 21, 2007
Emily Dickinson's famous lines "there is no frigate like a book to take us miles away" could not be more apropros of Lloyd Jones' magical MISTER PIP. Matilda, the narrator, is a black child entering puberty living in New Guinea when we first meet her. Her beloved father has left her and her mother to seek his fortune in Australia and try to, in the words of her mum, "turn into a white man." Matilda becomes fascinated, as does the reader, with the only white man on her island, Mr. Watts (some days he wore a red clown's nose), nicknamed by the children of the village "Pop Eye." His wife is a black woman named Grace whom he often pulls around on a trolley. When war breaks out and many people flee the settlement, Mr. Watts teaches the remaining island children. He reads aloud to his spellbound students Charles Dickens' GREAT EXPECTATIONS, which he describes as the greatest novel by the greatest English writer of the nineteenth century. Dickens' character Pip makes an indelible impression on the young Matilda and becomes much more real to her than dead relatives. Much of the conflict in this beautifully crafted story has to do with the tension between Mr. Watts, who does not believe in a god, and Matilda's mother Dolores, a devout believer in the Good Book. Matilda sees many parallels between her life and that of the fictional Pip. As an adult she remembers his confession,"it is a most miserable thing to feel ashamed of home" and thinks of her island. That passage and many others she sees as "personal touchstones."
Mr. Jones' narrative will hold you in its spell, and you will long remember Mr. Watts. Like many teachers, he is part charlatan, part magician, but also a kind and loving mentor. He is more alive than many of the people on the nightly news-- and certainly more decent-- and as real as William Styron's Sophie, John Updike's Rabbit or Thomas Hardy's Tess.
MISTER PIP says wondrous things about the power of the imagination, the permanence of storytelling-- when the novel is lost, Mr. Watts and his students remember fragments from it and write them down-- kindness and courage. The author is a wizard with words, but he also lets his characters make profound statements about life as well. For example, the Jones' ocean shuffles up the beach and draws out; Matilda hears "the lazy flip-flop of the sea--so much louder at night than during the day" and Mr. Watts defines the word "opportunity" to his students: "'The window opens and the bird flies out.'" Matilda, from reading this one book of Dickens, finds out that "you can slip under the skin of another just as easily as your own, even when that skin is white and belongs to a boy alive in Dickens' England. Now, is that isn't an act of magic I don't know what is." Another character muses on youth and age: "' Everyone was young in those days. That's the main complaint you hear from people who are getting old. You stop seeing young people. You begin to wonder if there are any left and whether there were only young people when you were young.'"
When you finish this haunting and intense story, you very well may want to reread the Dickens' account of the young Pip and his journey to becoming a gentleman. I know I do.