Introduction

Scott O'Dell 1903–

American novelist and journalist.

O'Dell's Newbery Award-winning novel Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960) is generally regarded as a classic of young adult literature. An exploration of the growth in confidence and sensitivity of an Indian girl who is left alone on an island for eighteen years, the novel is praised for its psychological complexity Island of the Blue Dolphins and O'Dell's subsequent books for young adults are based on historical persons and events; as Barbara Wersba notes, O'Dell "uses history as the mainspring for revealing truth about human beings: their passion, their grief."

O'Dell was raised in California, and the majority of his novels are set on the West Coast or in southwestern states. Many of O'Dell's works concern the Spanish colonization of the Southwest and the conflicts between the explorers and the native peoples. His Seven Serpents Trilogy is praised for its intricate detailing of Mayan culture. Comprising The Captive (1979), The Feathered Serpent (1981), and The Amethyst Ring (1983), the trilogy portrays a young New World missionary who disapproves of his compatriots' treatment of the Mayan Indians.

O'Dell has won critical recognition for his courageous and perceptive protagonists who are often caught in conflict between their needs for both independence and social integration. Such tension is evident in Karana, the central character of Island of the Blue Dolphins, who is left to her own resources after enemies expel her tribe and a wild dog kills her brother. Although Karana is initially embittered, she eventually befriends both a girl from the enemy tribe and the wild dog, displaying what some critics consider a balance between self-reliance and interdependence. Like Karana, Esteban de Sandoval in The King's Fifth (1966), Tom Barton in The Hawk That Dare Not Hunt by Day (1975), Julian Escobar in The Seven Serpents Trilogy, and Zia in Zia (1976), the sequel to Island of the Blue Dolphins, are all protagonists whose moral and emotional strengths are tested through separation from their groups. The characters either reenter their society with a changed perspective or decide to leave permanently. Most critics agree that the strength of these first-person narrators, combined with a vivid, understated prose style, are the qualities which give O'Dell's works their impact.

(See also Children's Literature Review, Vol. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61-64; and Something about the Author, Vol. 12.)