The events in this novel occur off the waters of Baja California, a lengthy Mexican peninsula that runs south from California into the Pacific Ocean. The waters teem with exotic and dangerous creatures. The citizens of La Paz, a village community of fishermen and pearlers, are always at the mercy of the climate and its powerful storms. No specific time period is identified in this story, for the pearlers have practiced their trade for centuries, with few changes in their way of life.
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The Black Pearl, like many of O'Dell's works, incorporates elements of legend, myth, and history. Structured around the ancient literary pattern of the quest, the book features a youth who sets out to attain glory but finds the path to success littered with physical trials and moral dilemmas. Like most heroes of legend, Ramon faces enemies both human and supernatural, finding evil in the Sevillano's greed as well as in the Manta Diablo's destructiveness. The Manta Diablo recalls such legendary supernatural creatures as the medieval dragon; able to communicate with other animals and change its shape at will, its many attributes and dread reputation have been confirmed and bolstered by the spoken fears of people. The Sevillano, like Sinbad and other legendary warriors, is boastful and uncommonly brave. His tattoos speak of confrontations with such powerful natural creatures as the octopus. His flaws are, of course, his pride and his scornful attitude toward forces greater than himself. Still another figure typical of classical legend is Soto Luzon, who, like the seer of Greek myth and the Ancient Mariner of Samuel Coleridge's nineteenth-century poem, warns young Ramon about the cost of "stealing" the great pearl from the Manta Diablo.
The Black Pearl also reflects the work of nineteenth-century American writer Herman Melville. The mythic style and themes of O'Dell's work resemble those of Melville's Moby-Dick, in which Captain Ahab,...
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The Black Pearl contains few elements that are likely to prove controversial. O'Dell shows how Catholicism and legend influence the lives of his characters, but he does not encourage readers to embrace a particular faith. Rather, he advocates that people respect religion. The novel's protagonist acknowledges that there are forces in the universe more powerful than any one individual, but he also learns that the individual has the ability and obligation to act responsibly.
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Topics for Discussion
1. Ramon states that the day the pearl was returned to the Madonna, not the day he found the treasure, marked the "beginning of his manhood." What has he learned that makes him feel this way?
2. Considering that an entire fleet of pearlers has been destroyed by the storm at Punta Maldonado, how do you explain the attitude of resignation the villagers of La Paz show toward the disaster?
3. Why does Ramon suddenly decide to join the Sevillano in killing the Manta Diablo? In what way does the Sevillano influence Ramon's decisions and actions throughout the novel?
4. At first, Ramon believes that the Manta Diablo is simply a fictitious creature invented by parents to frighten children. Later he becomes a believer. What does the change reveal about him?
5. Why does Ramon's father refuse to bargain over the Pearl of Heaven? Why does he reject a great sum of money and donate the pearl to the church? How does his gift to the church bring about positive change in La Paz?
6. Why is Ramon impatient with his father when he gets his first chance to go out with the fleet?
7. The statue of the Madonna is described as being neither old nor young, Indian nor Spanish. What does O'Dell suggest with this description?
8. Both Ramon and the Sevillano plan to steal the Pearl of Heaven from the Madonna. Are their motives similar?
9. How does the Sevillano explain the destruction of the fleet? Do...
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Many comparisons and contrasts may be drawn between The Black Pearl and Herman Melville's classic sea novel, Moby-Dick. Examine the plots, characters, and themes of each and explain the similarities and differences you see.
2. Compare The Black Pearl to a familiar legend or myth. Show how the novel follows the traditional pattern and how it departs from it.
3. Compare The Black Pearl with John Steinbeck's novel The Pearl which is based on the same story. Explain the differences in theme between the two books.
4. O'Dell's Mexican pearlers reflect a culture very different from that of the contemporary U.S. Explain the differences in values and beliefs that are visible in the novel.
5. Research the area of Baja (pronounced "Ba-ha") California and report on its culture and people. Does O'Dell give us an accurate portrait or not?
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Most of O'Dell's fiction for young adults takes place along the North American Pacific Coast or among the islands nearby. Several of his books focus on young people in these areas, and although they do not form a series, they all examine the processes of maturation and cultural adaptation.
United International's 1976 film version of The Black Pearl deviates substantially from O'Dell's work. In the movie, the pearl is sold to buy food and clothing for the villagers. O'Dell was unhappy with this change because he felt it weakened the spiritual theme of his story.
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For Further Reference
"Interview with Scott O'Dell." Psychology Today (January 1968). Focuses upon O'Dell's views on the nature of the juvenile reader.
Townsend, John Rowe. A Sense of Story: Essays on Contemporary Writers for Children. New York: Lippincott, 1971. Contains a book-by-book discussion of O'Dell and his sources for fiction. The essay considers The Black Pearl as a minor work.
Wittle, Justin, and Emma Fisher. The Pied Pipers. New York: Paddington, 1974. Includes an extended interview with O'Dell, dealing primarily with his opinions on bringing up children today.
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