Ramon Salazar’s timeless journey of the soul introduces young readers to that seemingly universal dialogue of cultures, the dialogue between fear and love, authority and personal autonomy, superstition and faith. Early in his tale, Ramon’s choices are adaptations to traditional values of fear, competitiveness, acquisitiveness, ego, and wishful thinking. Feeling weak, he seeks empowerment by becoming a diver. Feeling inferior to Gaspar, he dreams of the most extraordinary accomplishment, finding treasure. Once a doubter and now an eyewitness to the evil Manta Diablo, Ramon discovers its greater reality; like all the powers of the physical universe, the Manta Diablo’s power is both horrifying and awesomely beautiful. This greater awareness allows Ramon to mature and move toward choices that affirm his love of his father, with all his imperfections. Without peer pressure or an exemplary model, Ramon actively constructs his own identity and values and returns to his home and his mother and sisters with a dawning sense of his own self-worth. His final choice, to return the stolen pearl to its sanctuary in the open hand of the Madonna, symbolizes a triumph of human love and faith over all those fearful powers of nature, humankind, and demons.
Although triumphant, Ramon is far from perfect. He spins a yarn of good and evil very like the standard gothic tale designed to thrill, with glowering monsters and dark and stormy nights. As a narrator, he appears to have no sense of humor and little awareness of the racism and sexism informing his world and his own words and deeds. As an autobiographer, he seems bland and self-absorbed. Perhaps his lack of critical faculties emphasizes how his transformation is not powered by the exercise of reason. His transformation is accomplished by a series of affective, value-laden choices between self and other, good and evil, fear and love.
The Black Pearl is among more than two dozen works by one of the most highly respected American writers of fiction for children and young adults. Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960), certainly Scott O’Dell’s best-known work, won the Newbery Medal in 1961. The Hans Christian Andersen Author’s Medal, the highest international recognition for an entire body of work written for young readers, was given to O’Dell in 1972, a first for an American writer. Born in Southern California, O’Dell was particularly drawn to subjects involving the histories of its native peoples. His works have remained popular in classrooms not only because of his trustworthy research on events, culture, and customs but also because the experiences of the protagonists show readers both conflicts of social values and individual desires common to all. Other powerful and universal concerns, such as the relationship between humans and their physical universe and the enigma of humankind’s seemingly boundless inhumanity, are dramatically and vividly explored.
Because The Black Pearl represents and affirms aspects of comfortable family life in a Mexican city, it offers an attractive classroom alternative to more common tales of poverty, struggle, and desperate attempts at escape. It is nevertheless far less popular among teachers and students than Island of the Blue Dolphins, perhaps because of the protagonist’s culturally induced male myopia. Women are inconsequential in the novel; their only role in the provincial and patriarchal world represented by the protagonist is to submit to men’s will and look to a man, even a sixteen-year-old, for leadership and the determination of the future. There is also an unquestioned and unexamined hint of racism in Ramon’s participation in the disdain with which local Indian cultural views are regarded. Even the novel’s dominant characters, Ramon and the macho Gaspar, seem one-dimensional as foils for each other, and their fates seem more didactic than satisfying. Yet, the metaphor of a jewel of personal self-esteem discovered by a young man and shared with his world glows in a reader’s memory.