Scott O'Dell

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John Rowe Townsend

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1872

The title of Island of the Blue Dolphins, lovely in sound and evocative in all its key words (for the 'blue' transfers itself to the ocean), sums up the attraction of the O'Dell world. But it is not a matter of settings alone; this is an admirable novel; and its successor, The King's Fifth (1966), is to my mind even finer, although in Britain it is not well known. The subsequent O'Dell books, up to the time of writing, have been slighter.

Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960) accepts some severe limitations. It is the story of an Indian girl who survives for many years alone on a small and desolate island. For much of its course it has only one human character; so all that large part of the more usual story which depends on dialogue and the interaction of personality is ruled out. The heroine is uneducated, has never been beyond her own tiny territory, has no wider frame of reference; so abstract thought is almost ruled out, too, and figures of speech can only be of the simplest. There is little plot in the conventional sense; the story goes on and on with a good deal of sameness over a long period; its development is in the character of the heroine herself, and this is a theme which it is extremely difficult to make interesting for young readers.

Yet all these limitations have been converted into strengths. The fact that there is only one central character, in this remote and isolated setting, makes identification total; the reader must be Karana or the book is meaningless. The telling of the story has a memorable purity to which its fresh direct concreteness contributes as much as the author's excellent ear. And the long, continuous time dimension allows the story to take itself outside our clock-and-calendar system altogether, to complete the islanding of a human being's experience.

A Robinson Crusoe story has of course an appeal of its own which hardly needs to be spelled out. Survival is not an immediate problem at present for most of us in the civilized Western world, but as a theme it still touches upon our deepest inborn instincts and unconscious fears. And the details of survival, so compelling and convincing in [Daniel Defoe's] Robinson Crusoe itself and in all successful Robinsonnades, are absorbing here, and clearly authentic. Last, Island of the Blue Dolphins shows a human being in changing relationship to animal life, about which the author obviously knows a great deal. Birds, beasts and fishes are to Karana at first, and to a great extent must continue to be, either things to be hunted or competitors for the means of subsistence; but as she grows she achieves an acceptance of them as fellow-creatures. If there is a key incident in the whole book, it is the one in which she befriends her arch-enemy, the leader of the wild dogs.

It is a story with intrinsic sadness; and not only because of the early death of small brother Ramo and the later death of Karana's only close friend, the dog Rontu. It is immensely sad to lose human company throughout the years of youth. The depth of this loss is hinted at, no more, in the brief, tentative relationship with the girl who accompanies Aleutian hunters to the island; in the tiny touch of vanity over the cormorant-feather skirt; in the girl's marking her face, on being rescued after all those years, with the sign that she is still unmarried. Karana herself is no mere cipher. She has the qualities which are...

(This entire section contains 1872 words.)

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implied and indeed required by her situation; she is strong, sensible, intelligent, resourceful. And while she is unsentimental she can—even in the desolating absence of other human beings—love. A sad story, yes; but the sadness ofIsland of the Blue Dolphins is of a singularly inspiring kind. Among all the Newbery Medal winners there are few better books.

The King's Fifth is a more complex novel, notable among other things for its formal structure. The hero Esteban de Sandoval is in a prison cell in Spanish Mexico, awaiting trial on a charge of having deprived the King of his lawful fifth share in a treasure found far to the north in the unknown lands of New Spain. Interspersing the story of his prison life and trial is Esteban's account, written night by night in his cell, of the events that led up to it; the stories of 'how' and 'then' move forward side by side until they merge in the last chapter, when all has been told and the verdict is handed down.

The underlying story is that of a treasure hunt, in which Esteban, a cartographer, forms one of a small band led by the daring and unscrupulous adventurer Captain Mendoza. The party includes, besides Mendoza's henchmen, a young Indian girl, who is guide and interpreter, and Father Francisco, whose concern is to save souls. As an adventure story—the story of a quest followed by a trek for survival—it does very well; but it is a moral as well as a physical exploration, and there are moral as well as physical events in it.

Treasure is sinister; that is the heart of the matter. It is not merely that treasure is often both hidden and discovered in circumstances of violence and treachery. The truth is also that the hope of great unearned gain can be one of the most corrupting ever to get men in its grip. In The King's Fifth there are not so much good and bad characters as the innocent and the corrupted. The guide Zia, who longs to ride a horse and to help with the mapmaker's art, is innocent; so is Father Francisco; so are those Indians to whom gold is mere dirt for which they have no use. The narrator Esteban is less simple. He is led into the quest by his yearning to map what no man has mapped before, and at first devotion to his craft protects him; but the gold which is won at last from an Indian city begins to exert its baneful influence. Mendoza dies, killed by a dog he has trained in savagery; Zia goes her way, for she sees Esteban becoming another Mendoza; and Esteban finishes in the Inferno, a hot white sandy basin where his last companion, Father Francisco, dies. And only now does he grasp the enormity of the evil burden and tip the gold, enough to make many men rich, into a deep bubbling crater of foul yellow water where it will be lost for ever.

In the parallel story of the consequences—Esteban's imprisonment and trial—the seedy majesty of Spanish law and administration is seen to be similarly corrupted. No one cares for more than the outward forms of justice, but everyone hopes to recover the treasure. Esteban refuses an offer to let him escape, and is ready to serve a three-year sentence in daunting conditions, because freedom for him can now only come through expiation.

The King's Fifth is a sombre and searching book. The two that followed it were less substantial. The Black Pearl (1967) is the terse, masculine story of young Ramon, who seized the Pearl of Heaven from the underwater cavern of the great Devilfish; and of Ramon's father, who donated the pearl to the statue of the Madonna in the church on the coast of Lower California, mistakenly thinking to buy divine protection against wind and water; and of the tall-talking Sevillano, who sought to steal the pearl, and fought the Devilfish when it came seeking its own, and died. At last the great pearl, purified now, is placed in the hand of the Madonna-of-the-Sea as a gift of love.

The brief, spare piece of writing … is something between a fable and a mystery. The greed and presumption of men are punished. Who is Ramon's father to think he can buy the favours of the Almighty, who is the Sevillano to think he can defeat and steal from the mighty Devilfish? Obviously there are symbolisms involved; for while the Madonna is to be adored the dark powers represented by the Devilfish must also be reckoned with. But what are the dark powers, and are they inside or outside the minds of men? That is part of the mystery, and a mystery does not need to have a simple solution, or indeed any solution.

The way the Devilfish dominates this story makes one think of Moby Dick; and it is interesting but not surprising that an obsession with that book is the core of O'Dell's next novel [The Dark Canoe (1968)]. (pp. 154-57)

There is much in this short book: a surprising amount. It raises the difficult question whether a novel can depend upon another and still live in its own right. I am disposed to think that an author is as much entitled to draw upon a classic novel as upon myth; and Moby Dick as much as any novel has the size and depth of myth; the test, as I have suggested in discussing books based on myth, is whether the author has successfully absorbed his material and made it his own. By that test it must be said that The Dark Canoe fails. Though relevant parts of Moby Dick are explained, O'Dell's book does not fully live apart from Melville's; does not make full imaginative or psychological sense without it. Sing Down the Moon. (1970) is again a short book: too short perhaps for the story it has to tell. It is concerned with the sufferings of the Navajo Indians who were driven from their homes and forced into the long, dreadful march to Fort Sumner in 1864. The story is told in the first person by a young Navajo girl, Bright Morning; and, as in Island of the Blue Dolphins, O'Dell shows a gift for assuming a feminine identity which is all the more remarkable in a writer whose work is generally very masculine. There is a lovely, grave simplicity in this telling; yet one feels that perhaps it has been pared down too far, that a style which was admirably suited to the lonely setting of a Pacific island is less appropriate for a story that is full of people and harsh, clashing action. With the limpid brevity of Sing Down the Moon goes a sense of remoteness, almost of withdrawal. (pp. 158-59)

One suspects that a quick, light step is not natural to Scott O'Dell. His is a more measured tread. And probably he is a long-distance man. His most substantial books have been his most successful, and The King's Fifth—a sombre, almost stately novel—is his best of all. It must be significant, too, that he has found inspiration in that most massive of classics, Moby Dick. His best stories grow, moreover, from roots which are planted in known experience, actual places, historical fact, books; and there is neither wit nor humour in them. His imagination is strong but it does not soar or sparkle. He is a natural heavyweight. (p. 159)

John Rowe Townsend, "Scott O'Dell," in his A Sense of Story: Essays on Contemporary Writers for Children, J. B. Lippincott Company, 1971, pp. 154-61.


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