O'Dell's tale of a young boy's abrupt passage into adulthood follows a familiar and elemental pattern: a youth defies his elders and embarks on a dangerous quest that climaxes in an encounter with a supernatural being. The protagonist eventually gains a material prize as well as a vital understanding of life's hardships, and comes to realize that evil wears many faces.
In drawing upon this timeless theme of passage into adulthood, The Black Pearl stresses ideas that apply to young people of any era or culture: that gaining maturity is necessarily an ordeal; that growing up involves conflict with parents; and, most important, that human beings are part of a vast world of natural forces, few of which they understand.
O'Dell's protagonist, Ramon Salazar, is a boy whose impatience with childhood leads him into trouble and, at the same time, speeds his maturation. Certainly, Ramon is childish in his rash campaign to outdo the boastful Sevillano (Gaspar Ruiz) and in his disregard for the warnings given him by the old man Soto Luzon, yet his brashness eventually contributes to his wisdom about people, God, and nature. He dives into a cave that Luzon warns is guarded by the Manta Diablo ("devil manta"), and there he finds the great black pearl, or the Pearl of Heaven.
The spiritual world of The Black Pearl is as real as the simple fishing village of La Paz. O'Dell focuses on a conflict rarely touched upon in young adult literature: the difficulty in distinguishing religion from superstition. Christianity, as represented by the Madonna to whom the Pearl of Heaven is given, and the dark forces, as represented by the Manta Diablo play a role in the...
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