Mina is home-schooled. She likes to quote Wiliam Blake (the poet) quite a bit. One quote she uses puts forth the notion that traditional, classroom schooling steals the joy of learning from students. She has bought into this idea completely. Her parents were of the same mind (her father is now dead) and so when she is schooling at home, she reads, writes, draws, paints, studies animals and their skeletal structure, nature, and even the...
Mina is home-schooled. She likes to quote Wiliam Blake (the poet) quite a bit. One quote she uses puts forth the notion that traditional, classroom schooling steals the joy of learning from students. She has bought into this idea completely. Her parents were of the same mind (her father is now dead) and so when she is schooling at home, she reads, writes, draws, paints, studies animals and their skeletal structure, nature, and even the artistic nature of clay—making animal sculptures. She, however, does not have much in the way of a social life.
Michael is torn as he is completely fascinated (most of the time) by her take on the world. He believe she is extraordinary. Except for her unveiled insults of the public schooling system, and her complete disregard for his friends (due to jealousy? and their taunting of her?), he loves to discuss things with her that she has learned that are not taught in his classes in school.
In this way we can see both sides of the positive elements that home-schooling and traditional schooling offer. And though Mina discredits Michael's schooling often, she is—though unusual—still a caring, gentle-hearted girl, and Michael finds a great deal about her to admire. They become very close friends.
Mina lives "further along" on Falconer Road, at Number 7, from Michael's new house, a derelict fixer-upper that threatens one life while sheltering another. Mina is about Michael's age but is taught at home by her artistic, poetic mother instead of attending school. When Michael first sees Mina, she is peeking over the back garden wall from the lane behind his new home. Mina gives him a lesson in courtesy when she prompts him on how to give his name in an introduction: "She clicked her tongue and shook her head and said in a bored-sounding singsong voice, 'I'm Mina. You're ...'." When next he sees her, she is up the tree in her front garden observing a family of blackbirds by which Michael has immediately been identified as "Danger" because he scared a parental blackbird off: "'Silly you,' she said. 'You scared it off. ... Danger. That's you.'" Mina is an intellectual girl who acknowledges the spiritual side of reality and who has a disdain for both football and organized schooling. It is Mina who teaches Michael to "see whatever's there":
'I'm worried that you won't see what I think I see.' [Said Michael.]
She took my hand and squeezed it.
'I'll see whatever's there,' she whispered. 'Take me in.'
Mina is a character who is integral to the development of the story of Michael, Skellig and Michael's new-born sister (so newly born that she has no name until the end of the story). Mina delivers significant lines that develop theme and point to symbolism. In fact, it is hard to find much that Mina says that doesn't serve a double purpose of character development and thematic or symbolic development; since an analytical reading is needed in order to identify theme and symbolism in what Mina says, this is not a criticism of David Almond's style. In addition, Mina lives a symbolically unspecified distance from Michael, just "further along the street" on the "same side of the street" as Michael, signifying the symbolic distance between their understandings of the spiritual nature of the world, a spiritual nature that author David Almond posits, that William Blake represents and that Mina embraces (along with the idea of evolution).
What is Mina's initial characterization?
Our initial encounter with Mina, occurring at the same time as Michael's first encounter, leaves the impression that, while being extremely intelligent, observant, interactive, and open about sharing ideas and feelings, she is arrogant, insensitive, a bit intolerant, and a bit too absorbed in her own interior creativity and intelligence. We feel she needs a friend, and, luckily, she is interested in a friendship with Michael, about whom she feels undisguised curiosity.
We also see that she is favorably impressed with her first encounters with Michael despite his immediate shortcomings. Considering her arrogance, her self-perception of superiority (a self-perception not without merit: she is intellectually and creatively superior to the majority of her peers), and her openness and expressiveness, if she were not favorably impressed with him, she would not hesitate to say so or to send and keep Michael away. Her favorable impression of Michael is a sincere one despite her repeated condescending comments of "Typical."
As the plot develops, we see that Mina is extremely capable, not only in her art, poetry and science studies but in handling the unexpected as well, such as when she introduces Michael to the attic owls and when she first encounters Skellig. Rather than being frightened away from Skellig, she closely observes and diagnoses the indications of what she sees: "Calcification .... The process by which the bone hardens." Along with being capable, we see that she is also courageous and inquisitive as she shows herself to be while in the derelict garage and in her study of the owls and the blackbird nestlings.
She is also surprisingly caring and dedicated, as shown in the care she gives Skellig, in her plea that Michael help her protect the first-day fledglings, and in her compassion toward Michael's baby sister and toward Michael's emotionally distressed situation. Further, since she believes Michael without hesitation or question when he says that his sister's heart beats quietly with his own (although it takes her a couple of efforts to hear it herself), we see that her inquisitiveness, involvement, intelligence and courage produce an openness of mind in her that does not exclude the unseen, the incredible and the supernatural. Her devotion to the spiritualist, metaphysicalist, Romantic poet William Blake gives real-world credibility and groundedness to her accepting open-mindedness.
Who is Mina in the context of the text?
Themes of evolution and truth and symbols of air-borne flight and vision are developed through Mina's character. Without Mina's dialogue, the narrator would have the burden of theme development and symbol presentation; this would tend to make the story didactic rather than engaging and entertaining. As it is, we can readily believe that a precociously intelligent girl, secluded from social norms, might have the opinions, knowledge and responses that Mina has.
Mina is also the voice of--the symbolic representation of--wisdom and independent thought, notwithstanding that her independent thought is at least in part the product of her mother's own nature, talents and influence as well as a product of their joint reliance on the truth as spoken by William Blake. Mina's reliance on her mother and Blake develops the theme of selectivity of influences. Selectivity is contrasted to blind acceptance of the influence of social norms as represented by the schoolboys, Coot and Leakey.
The voice of intelligence, complex thought, truthful perception and trustworthy observation, Mina perceives "whatever's there" and observes analytically and objectively, correctly asking Skellig "What are you?" The voice of love, Mina kisses Skellig's cheek when bluebottles and owl-like pellets and the stench of his breath are the only clearly discernible markers of his identity: "Mina kisses his pale cracked cheek." She is also the voice of nature, an indispensable component of the world and of life (Skellig's life is sustained by the gifts from nature that the owls bring). Nature cannot defend itself against every predator or every encroachment on its safety, as is shown through Whisper's menacing attention to the fledgling blackbirds. Further, Mina is also the spokesperson for evolution, which is a central theme of Skellig, a story in which the idea of evolution to a higher metaphysical state combining the best features of several possible states of being (human, bird, angel) is supported by the visions, the life experiences and the poetry of William Blake:
The sun descending in the west.
The evening star does shine.
The birds are silent in their nests,
And I must seek for mine ... (William Blake)
Mina is also the voice of the anti-culturalism and cultural criticism that Almond builds the story upon. This anti-culturalism and cultural criticism is most obviously presented in Mina's tirade against "appropriate" reading age levels: "'But what's the red sticker for? ... where would William Blake fit in? ... "Tyger! Tyger! burning bright / In the forests of the night." ... would the best readers [think] it would be too stupid for them?'"
Cultural criticism is further developed through Mina's conflict with football playing schoolboys. By contrasting Mina's opinion to Michael's football victory, David Almond lodges a subtle protest against antagonism toward sports games in school. Mina is used to represent this antagonism to sports (antagonism against which Almond protests) when she says the lads Leakey and Coot are "screeching like hyenas" for playing robust football (soccer in the U.S.) with Michael. This unexpected culturally critical protest against antagonism toward sport in schools is further illuminated when Michael plays a triumphant game that restores his friendships with his "mates" after the baby's surgery and after his Mum's tale of her "dream" visitation from Skellig.
Cultural criticism of a different sort is further developed through Mina's low-key protest against a different kind of antagonism: antagonism toward Darwin's evolutionary theory. This culturally critical protest is evident in Mina's proclamation of evolution as an irrefutable fact and the correlated inferred denouncement of any who reject evolution: "[Mina says] Not a matter of belief. ... It's a proven fact ... evolution."
What is Mina's function in the structure of the story?
One of Mina's most significant function's in the structure of the story is to provide an unbiased interpretation of Michael's character as a sincere, genuinely caring, thoughtful individual. In other words, because arrogant, observant, scientific Mina sees Michael the same way that we do (sincere, etc), we can be sure that Michael is a reliable narrator and central character; he isn't a fraud and won't turn out to be different than he seems to be. If Mina saw him differently than we see him, then we would know he was an unreliable character and narrator who was hiding some core personality or psychological defect and that his distress over his sister's condition and his concern for Skellig was in some way insincere, fraudulent, deceptive. Because of Mina's function, we are free to believe Michael's love, distress, sympathy and deep empathy for his sister and Skellig. This is important since the cliche brother-new-baby-sister stereotype relationship is one of bitter conflict and adversarial jealousy.
Mina's function in the structure of the story also sets up the actual conflicts, which are generally person against nature, with the exception of some person against person or friend against friend conflict, such as when Leakey and Coot create conflict by becoming adversaries of Mina and, later, of Michael. There is some person against self conflict when Michael's mother and father openly acknowledge the danger and harm caused by their choice to move to a derelict house during the last stage of the mother's pregnancy: "'It's this d__ place! ... How can she thrive when it's all so dirty...?' we should never have left Random Road."
The central and parallel conflicts between the baby and nature and Skellig and nature are framed by Mina's role because she provides the mirror or sounding board against which each of these experiences in Michael's life is reflected and reverberated. This gives clarity and reliability to the experience for us, for Michael and in some ways for Skellig too: Mina understands him as no other human (seemingly) has ever done before and--because of her depth of understanding, knowledge and wisdom--Skellig trusts her, then trusts Michael and lets both help him. A bitter irony underlies the central conflicts because of the cause-and-effect sequencing of events.
- Moving into the derelict house sets off conflict because the work of moving in and starting to make the rotting house livable sets off the premature delivery of the baby, Michael's sister. Consequently, the baby's struggle to live begins with the ironically dangerous move from Random Road to the new house at Falconer Road (it is well worth looking into the symbolism behind "Random" and "Falconer" Roads).
- The greatest friend in Michael's young life--Mina--ironically meets him because of the near-tragic move to the derelict house on Falconer Road. Mina is needed to draw all the separate elements of the central conflicts together. This even applies to the final elements of the story: the mother's vision of Skellig, Michael's experiences with "two hearts," the baby's survival because of her "heart like fire" and Michael's loss of Skellig.
- Again, in bitter irony, the event (moving to the derelict house) that very nearly destroys his family's happiness is the event that gives Skellig a chance to be saved (and to have "23 and 57" and brown ale again).
In other words, moving into the derelict house sets off a bitterly ironic and complex chain of sequential events that lead to the salvation of two threatened lives. For Michael to find Skellig (and take Mina to him), he had to move into the house. Moving in sets off the threat to the baby's life (we are meant to presume that had they not moved, the baby's delivery and life would have been eventless and healthy). Once Michael has moved in, Mina becomes his voice of reason, enlightenment, wisdom, encouragement and understanding and the conduit to resolution of one of the central conflicts: reclaiming Skellig's life. In bitter irony, the family's move to Falconer Road is the direct cause of the threat to the baby's life and of Skellig being saved. Ultimately, Michael saves Skellig, with the help of "23 and 57" and brown ale, and, finally, Skellig saves the baby, dancing with her until she sprouts airy angel's wings.
"'And the strangest thing of all was, there were wings on the baby's back. Not solid wings. Transparent, ghostly, hardly visible, but there they were. ... The strange tall man and the little baby with wings. ... He put her back down, he turned and looked at me again, and it was over.
Mina also functions in the structure of the story as the exemplar and the expounder of the thematic ideas of eyes that see into other eyes and of eyes that see into other people. This dual theme of eyes is critical to the development of the story and is presented in different ways:
- Mina has eyes that see right through Michael.
- Mina and Michael have eyes that look right into each others' eyes
- Mina and Michael discover that Skellig has eyes that look into and through as well.
Michael unconsciously acts in accord with the theme of eyes that look right through a person and into the depths of a person, when, even before he has discovered Skellig's wings, he asks what Skellig can do for his baby sister: "[Skellig] opened his eyes and looked at me. ... 'My baby sister's very ill. ... Is there anything you can do for her?'" Why does Michael ask if there is anything Skellig can do for the baby before he has even found Skellig's wings? According to this thematic message of the book Skellig, Michael intuitively knows to ask because of his contact with Skellig's eyes; he intuitively knows--even though he may not be able to say why he knows--after seeing with eyes that see through people and into people's eyes, that Skellig has something that he can do for the baby. This is an interesting point because, while we are told that Mina has eyes that see into and through, we are never told this about Michael's eyes. The information we have about Michael's eyes evolves as the story evolves: we know that he and Mina see into each others' eyes; we know that he and Mina and Skellig see into each other's eyes; we know that Michael believes that since Coot is his friend, then Coot will understand Michael just by looking into his eyes. Therefore, by properties of inference, we know Michael has the same kind of eyes that Mina has: eyes that see through and into other eyes.
We looked deep into each other's eyes. We began to turn. Our hearts and breath were together. We turned and turned until the ghostly wings rose from Mina's back and mine, until we felt ourselves being raised, ... [to] dance in the empty air.
Some themes and symbolism Mina develops are:
- tender deeply seeing eyes: "He gazed back at us with his tender eyes."
- evolution of hybrid entities that combine the best of many kinds of beings creating a spiritual evolution among humans.
- biases of "us" against "them"; Mina is not free from biases as she reacts with prejudicial bias against Michael's "screeching" friends who only want to rough-house and play sports; from their own bias, she is "monkey girl," while from her bias, they are "hyenas."
- the possibility of joining hearts and breath as when Michael carried his baby sister's heartbeat and breath alongside his own.
- loving and giving someone their life back: "Can love help a person get better?" "'"Love is the child that scatters death."'" "Thank you for giving me my life back."
- spiritual leaps out of corporeal bodies caused by "great fear or enormous pain" as when Michael left his consciousness during the baby's surgery: "'Oh, Mina!' I said. ... My heart's stopped. ... There's nothing there.' ... Then there was just blackness."
- birds symbolically representing the evolved spiritual flight of Skellig and of Mina and Michael; birds symbolizing the need to care for and protect nature--whether wildlife or human nature--beauty and spirituality: "'You've got to come and help me. ... The fledglings are out. ... Cats'll get them.'"
- the confusion and similarities between "dreams and truth" symbolized by Mina's sleepwalking and symbolizing evolving human nature, a nature with qualities undefined by present understanding.
Mina is also instrumental in developing the implied theme that conflict is necessary for life: life is sustained through conflict and life evolves through conflict. Mina's role as the protector of nature, depicted while she guards the first-day fledglings from Whisper and other predators, amplifies this theme by illustrating that conflict has to be selective. Conflict in life, although a part of the life process, cannot be rampant or wanton; some conflict must be prevented and guarded against (like some influence must be prevented and guarded against). Needless conflicts are ones like those caused by bad tempers between friends, as dramatized by Mina's efforts to make up with Michael on the back steps of her house after their blow-up.
In summary, Mina, the girl down the street who speaks for nature, learning, and open-mindedness, is a gifted and insightful character whose role, insights and wisdom develop the deep meaning of the story and illuminate Almond's message that life forms evolve into higher beings and that with evolution comes conflict but that conflict has to be selective rather than random. This selective conflict can escort in "extraordinary" changes to hearts, minds, manifestations of reality ("ghostly wings ... dancing in empty air") and relationships. One puzzle remains regarding who Mina is: Why, at the end of the story, is she so demur, bashful and hesitant when she goes to Michael's house to meet the baby and to deliver her drawing of Skellig? What has she felt or realized that has so radically changed her out-spoken nature to such quiet demeanor?
While in the baby's hospital room, Michael's mother tells her family about her hospital "dream" ("the strangest of dreams") of "the strange tall man"; Michael tells Mina about it later. Mina brings a drawing of a winged Skellig that exactly matches the mother's vision, an action that reveals the secret that the mother's vision was in fact a shared reality, a shared truth. When Mina goes to Michael's home to meet the baby and bring the drawing, perhaps what appears to be bashfulness and shyness in Mina is, instead, solemnity born of Mina's sense of honoring the absent Skellig with her drawing and of initiating Michael's mother and father into the secret of an evolving world, an evolving humanity, as witnessed in the person of Skellig, who did "something for the baby" whose new name is Joy: "We thought a little longer, and in the end we simply called her Joy."