Scott O'Dell is a much-honored author, a real general of children's literature who comes with as many medals as a prizewinning Swiss chocolate. Therefore he must be judged by the highest standards as one's expectations are keenly aroused. Alas, they are not fulfilled [with The Captive]. We all understand what is meant by a good bad book. It is a book that is thoroughly reprehensible and lacking in all the higher qualities of literature, such as moral values, philosophy, construction, character-drawing and general credibility, and yet contrives to be thoroughly readable…. Well, The Captive is what I can only describe as a bad good book. It is good inasmuch as it is well constructed, well researched, contains many interesting items of unfamiliar knowledge, and displays unimpeachable moral worth (Mr. O'Dell comes out very strongly aginst Slavery, Murder and Human Sacrifice; he doesn't hold with them for a moment!); but it is not very readable. It is inclined to be ponderous, and the prose style reminds one of a careful translation.
The story, told in the first person, is of Julián Escobar, a young seminarian who embarks with the conquistadors for the New World, where he witnesses the monstrous behavior of those who seek for gold. He is, naturally, horrified and repelled; and yet his own course proves to be not entirely beyond reproach. In his zeal to do good, Julian falls victim to the sin of spiritual pride and an apt parallel is drawn with Christ's Temptation in the wilderness.
It is a strong theme and might have been a gripping tale … but for the author's refusal to become involved in it. The very reference at the end to the Temptation in the wilderness is thought of as "the scene where Satan took Christ unto an exceeding high mountain." The scene. Surely no Spanish seminarian would think of Holy Writ in such theatrical terms! And so it is throughout. There is no immediacy. One gets the impression that the author is looking at a series of pictures and carefully describing them. At no time are we really with the hero. We receive no impression of his sensations. There are none of those touches that enliven the imagination. When our hero's hands are bound behind his back, there seems to be no reaction, no sense of helplessness, of indignity….
It may be that I am being unjust, and that future developments will illuminate all and justify what has gone before. I hope so, for I would not like to think that so admirable an author as Scott O'Dell (The Island of the Blue Dolphins was a splendid book) has fallen so far from his own high standards. As it is, I can only recommend the present book to those with a passionate desire to know more about the history and culture of the Mayan Indians.
Leon Garfield, "Young Man among the Mayans," in Book World—The Washington Post, March 9, 1980, p. 7.