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.