“Everyone called him Pop Eye,” Matilda Laimo writes, describing a man who used to live in her village on the island of Bougainville. The villagers called him by this name because of his bulging eyes, though Matilda says that even when she was a thirteen-year-old, she suspected he knew about his nickname but didn’t have time to care, since he “looked like someone who had seen or known great suffering and hadn’t been able to forget it.” She explains that Pop Eye was the only white person on the island and that the children liked to call him by his nickname in addition to his actual name, Mr. Watts, since nobody else had such a white-sounding name.
Matilda spends the first several pages of Mister Pip delivering this introductory information about Mr. Watts, placing early emphasis on his whiteness. In doing so, she hints at how strongly the inhabitants of Bougainville feel differences in race and culture. The fact that the children like to call him Mr. Watts in addition to his nickname suggests that they see him as a novelty in their community, something they’re eager to emphasize by using his formal title, which stands in such stark contrast to their own names.
On some days, Matilda explains, Mr. Watts used to wear a white linen suit and a red clown’s nose. Dressed in this odd fashion, he would tow Grace in a small trolley behind him. Children would gape at the strange scene, noting that Grace’s hair had been straightened and that Mr. Watts’s clown nose didn’t make him look silly or happy, but rather hopelessly sad. Meanwhile, adults in the village would whisper speculations about the odd couple, guessing that Grace was mentally unstable or that Mr. Watts “was doing penance for an old crime.” Matilda notes that “the sight represented a bit of uncertainty in [their] lives, which in every other way knew only sameness.”
By acknowledging that their lives “knew only sameness,” Matilda shows the importance of pattern and tradition in her culture. This is a group of people who are used to particular ways of being, who have lived a certain way without ever having to question their customs. Not only does Mr. Watts represent a different way of life because of the fact that he’s white, but he also disrupts the “sameness” of this village with his odd behavior, for which Matilda and her fellow villagers have no frame of reference.
During these outings, Grace carried a blue parasol to shade herself from the sun. Matilda remembers how she and the other children loved this touch, wondering but not asking about the difference between an ordinary black umbrella and a parasol. “If you went too far with a question like that one,” Matilda writes, “it could turn a rare thing into a commonplace thing.” She explains that Mr. Watts and Grace lived without children in the old minister’s house, which had been engulfed by grass after the minister died. Because of this, the only time the village saw Mr. and Mrs. Watts was when they walked through town with the trolley, the parasol, and the clown’s nose.
Matilda’s notion about turning “a rare thing into a commonplace thing” shows her capacity to accept things she doesn’t fully understand. It seems she would rather appreciate the strange beauty of Grace’s parasol than dissect what, exactly, it means. This tendency to embrace the unknown instead of critically scrutinizing new things foreshadows Matilda’s later accepting curiosity regarding Mr. Watts. If she were to analyze the difference between an umbrella and a parasol, she may find that the chief difference has to do with class—whereas an umbrella can be used to shield somebody from both sunlight and rain, most parasols only protect from sunlight. Furthermore, they are often used as ornamental accessories rather than as utilitarian objects. By not scrutinizing it, however, Matilda allows herself to enjoy the spectacle without having to feel inferior to the Wattses.
Matilda considers her village’s first contact with white people, saying that when her ancestors saw the first white person to arrive on the island, they thought they were seeing ghosts. She says that she was shown a video in school of a white duke visiting the island. The students laughed at the video, finding the duke’s behavior incomprehensibly odd, cracking up when he used a piece of cloth to wipe food from his mouth. Matilda herself admits that other than Mr. Watts and several Australian mine workers, she saw very few “living whites” as a child.
Once again, Matilda underscores the extent to which being white on the island of Bougainville is an anomaly many of the inhabitants don’t know how to conceptualize. By emphasizing this point once again, Jones sets up the racial divide between Mr. Watts and the rest of the village, suggesting that their differences are widely felt by the community and generated by contrasting ways of life.