The obvious challenge of teaching young children, starving for a distraction from ever-present turmoil, is not the only difficulty that Mr. Watts faces. Dolores, Matilda’s overzealous Christian mother, expresses an extreme distrust of the teacher and his curriculum. She does everything in her power to ensure that her daughter’s mind is not polluted by the strange white man, including making weekly visits to the classroom. She even goes as far as stealing and hiding Dickens’ Great Expectations, an action that causes immense trouble when redskin soldiers enter the village and find Mr. Pip’s name carved into the sand. Coincidently, it is Matilda who wrote his name, and it is her guilt that makes her empathize with her mother, who refuses to give up the book as evidence of Pip as a fictional character. Convinced that this Mr. Pip must be a spy who has been hidden from them, the redskins destroy the houses. All they leave behind are smoking fragments of Matilda’s former life.
As the tension escalates even further, a group of rebel soldiers returns to the village to question the only remaining white man, Mr. Watts. He agrees to explain himself over the course of five nights, and proceeds to tell a story that entwines Pip’s life even further with his own. Matilda develops an idea about why he returned to the island with his wife and stayed after all the other whites left. Now that his wife has died, Mr. Watts considers moving on and offers Matilda a chance to escape from the island. However, she would have to choose between Mr. Watts and her mother but before this can happen the rebels flee and the redskin soldiers return.
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This time the soldiers kill Mr. Watts, and when Matilda’s mother speaks up she is taken away. Matilda is almost raped, but her mother gives up her life to spare her. In the wake of surviving the slaughter of her village, her mother and Mr. Watts, Matilda loses her will to live. She nearly drowns, but is revived by the memory of Pip, who also narrowly escaped death. After clinging to a log, Matilda is picked up by the fisherman who had arranged to escape with Mr. Watts, and eventualy she reaches Australia.
It is there that Matilda is reunited with her father and begins to pick up the pieces of her disrupted life. She comes to terms with the reality of Mr. Watts, who altered both the facts of his life and the contents in Great Expectations in an effort to provide escape from the world, both for himself and for the children. She reveals her success in becoming a scholar and a Dickens expert and concludes her narrative by emphasizing the power of literature to offer escape and solace in the worst of times.