Before beginning, Matilda says that she believes her story results “from [the villagers’] ignorance of the outside world.” She explains that her mother Dolores’s knowledge was limited to what the island’s last minister had told her. She says that Dolores did not believe news from beyond the island, such as the fact that humankind had landed on the moon. She depicts her mother as a stubborn, strong-willed woman who never left Bougainville. She also explains that her father left when she was eleven, flying off the island in a mining plane bound for Townsville, Australia. The first postcard he sent recounted the awe he felt after seeing just how small Bougainville looked from the plane. In his second postcard, he confirmed that the family could financially support itself in Australia, at which point Matilda’s mother decided that they would join him.
Matilda builds upon the notion she previously established regarding the island’s insular and unvaried way of life. In this passage, she offers her mother as a specific example of this kind of single-minded thinking, showing Dolores’s reluctance to accept bits of outside information, such as the fact that the United States put a man on the moon. This is the kind of thinking that explains why the villagers would have such a hard time understanding or accepting Mr. Watts and his quirky behavior: it doesn’t fit into the way people like Dolores view life on Bougainville.
Just when Dolores determined to move with Matilda to Australia, Francis Ona (the leader of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army) declared war on the island’s copper mine and the company that controlled it, an act that resulted in the arrival of Papua New Guinea’s military, who hailed from Papua New Guinea’s capital, Port Moresby. Matilda and the other Bougainvilleans call these soldiers “redskins.” “According to Port Moresby we are one country,” writes Matilda. “According to us we are black as the night. The soldiers looked like people leached up out of the red earth.” With the escalation of this conflict, Papua New Guinea enforced a blockade around Bougainville, making it impossible for Dolores and Matilda to leave.
At this point, Jones explores the immediate effects of refusing to accept new ways of life. He demonstrates the way people tend to turn foreign cultures into “others,” often using race as a divisive tool. For example, Matilda points to racial differences to argue that Bougainville shouldn’t be united as one country with Papua New Guinea, commenting that she and her fellow villagers are “black as the night,” while the Papua New Guineans look “red.” Just as the village has trouble accepting Mr. Watts into their community because of his whiteness—whispering rumors about him instead of embracing the differences he embodies—the village also finds itself unable to make peace with the idea of existing as “one country” with the Papua New Guineans.
News about the war reached Matilda’s village in fragments, bits of information passed along through “hearsay” and “rumor.” Cut off from any form of reliable news, the village proceeded with life as usual, continuing their lives and sustaining themselves by fishing and eating fruit. Eventually, though, the village permanently lost electricity and children began to succumb to malaria. To make matters worse, rebel forces broke into the nearest hospital and stole all its medicine and supplies. During this time, Matilda and the other children stopped going to school because their teachers had left the island for good. Surprisingly enough, though, Mr. Watts didn’t join his fellow white people in fleeing Bougainville, a fact that confounded the villagers and gave them further cause to speculate about him. Matilda notes that it was “easy to accept” that Grace was mentally unstable, but more difficult to place Mr. Watts’s eccentricity, since he’d “come out of a world [they] didn’t really know.”
Yet again, Jones suggests that it is difficult to understand people who come from different cultures. Indeed, Matilda and her fellow villagers are unable to contextualize Mr. Watts’s decision to stay in Bougainville because they don’t “really know” the world he lives—or lived—in, meaning that they think his whiteness makes him so incredibly foreign that they can’t even begin to fathom the way he makes decisions or uses logic. In this moment, it seems to them that he uses fundamentally different intellectual tools, creating a gulf between them that keeps each side from understanding the other.