A book about the transformative nature of books is, of course, irresistible. At an unspecified time in an unknown place, that is to say, "once upon a time," a man began to teach a group of children by reading Great Expectations by Dickens to them a chapter a day. The island where this story occurs is at war; the whites left the island when the mine was no longer profitable, the young men of the black population became a ragtag army of rebels, and the "redskins" visit terrible violence on those who remained. (We never learn anything about the redskins.) The 14 year old narrator Matilda and her classmates escape to Victorian England, and Pip becomes more real to them than their own surreal lives.
The reader of the book is the one white man who remained on the island, a hapless fellow called Popeye for his protruding eyes, who sometimes wears a red clown nose and pulls his beautiful wife around in a trolley. He becomes Mr. Watts as he takes on the role of the teacher and wins the love and respect of the villagers. When a group of the rebels move into the village, Mr. Watts changes them from the menacing boy-soldiers to an appreciative audience by his nightly story-telling.
When the horror of the redskins is completed and Matilda escapes, the date and location are established and we are on firm ground. Matilda grows up to become a Dickins scholar and begins the story of Mr. Watts.