Do you think that a great work of literature can change your life? I do. Since reading Great Expectations by Charles Dickens as a fourteen year old, I have often thought about the many issues that the author raises. For example, are appearances more important than the morals and ideals a person holds dear? How does gentleman Pip measure up to his blacksmith brother-in-law? In essence, who is the real gentleman?
When asked by friends which book affected me the most in my life, and I have read many, my answer is always the same. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. So when Oprah recently picked it with A Tale of Two Cities for her book club, it didn't surprise me. So, I am in the midst of reading Dickens' Great Expectations again with a twist. The twist is that along with the Dickens' novel I have recently finished Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones. Several years ago, I started a yearly tradition with a friend of mine with whom I once worked. If we read a book that we enjoyed, we would put it in a padded brown envelope, bring it over to the post office and mail it with a short note saying how much we enjoyed the book wanting to share it with a fellow bibliophile; I guess you could call it a reader's advisory between friends. The last book I sent Sandra was Sonata For Miriam by Linda Olsson, and she in turn sent me Mister Pip.
Mister Pip is set on the island of Bougainville, an island which has been fighting a war with Papua, New Guinea since 1990. The protaganist, Matilda is a fourteen year old girl, the same age I was when I first read Great Expectations, living on the island in the early 1990s. When the island is blockaded, guerrilla warfare ensues between the "Redskins" or government soldiers and the Rambos or island rebels. Almost everyone has deserted the island leaving for places like Australia which is where Matilda's dad emigrated to four years before. Unfortunately, all of the educators have left the island as well, and the only person willing to step up to the plate and serve as teacher is Mr. Watts, the only white man in Bougainville.
This is where the Dickens' novel comes into play. Mr. Watts educates the children by reading a chapter of Great Expectations each day, all fifty-nine chapters. It is the only book left to read except for the Bible. Surprisingly, even though these 1990s children have nothing in common with Victorian London, they become engrossed with Pip and wait anxiously to see what he, Estella and Miss Havisham will do in the next chapter. Each evening they share the chapter with their families. Some, like Matilda's mom, feel that this white man, Mr. Watts, cannot be trusted. They fear what is different. This adds another element to the story, prejudice. Mr. Watts is married to a native from the island who he met in Australia. However, as the children wait in anticipation to hear Pip's story, and the parents share their stories and contemplate whether Mr. Watts is on the up and up, they also wait in fear of soldiers who prove to be brutal and unrelenting in their quest to overtake all those left on the island.
Set apart from the brutality of the war is the story about the book and its effect on the lives of the children with whom Mr. Watts shares it. It is about imagination and the will to survive horrendous deeds. It is about literature and the way it can influence lives even one hundred years in the future.
I would recommend both of these books for adults and teens. I would also like to know which book has had the greatest impact on your life?