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.
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, like the Sevillano, fails to respect powerful forces and dies while trying to kill a monster of the sea. Twentieth- century American author John Steinbeck based his novel The Pearl on the same legend from which O'Dell derived his story, but the two works demonstrate very different interpretations of the same source.
Ramon's first-person narration gives The Black Pearl a sense of immediacy. O'Dell's repeated references to dramatic nature imagery develop the novel's emotional climate. Red skies over the sea signal either peace or violence; the Pearl of Heaven is black, foreshadowing the grave consequences of Ramon's theft. Ramon's description of the approaching chubasco, the violent windstorm that dooms his father and the fleet, suggests that this will be a storm of death: The candles moved back and forth and then were snuffed out by an unseen hand. I tried to relight the candles but failed, for through the barred window the air was being sucked from the room in a great sigh."These dramatic images, combined with supernatural elements, create a constant air of suspense.
(The entire section is 737 words.)