Scott O'Dell

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Richard Bradford

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 501

["Child of Fire"] brims with violence as well as cruelty, usually involving animals. It also focuses so narrowly on a few minor and unfortunate aspects of Chicano culture that it would be an exceptionally poor introduction for young readers to that large, vivid ethnic group.

The narrator is Delaney, an Anglo (white non-Chicano) juvenile parole officer in San Diego…. Strangely, all of Delaney's charges have Spanish surnames.

Delaney tries to keep his "cases" from returning to jail, an apparently impossible job. Most of his charges are stereotypes: emotional, thin-skinned resentful, with an infantile sense of honor, and macho down to their stomping boots.

He takes particular interest in two of the boys, members of rival gangs (the Owls and the Conquistadores). Ernie Sierra, an Owl, seems irrevocably lost to society and, indeed, turns out to be. Manuel Castillo, however, reminds Delaney somehow of his own son, and he gets special treatment. Delaney first sees him across the border, in the Tijuana bull ring, when Castillo makes an espontáneo, an unauthorized leap from the seats into the ring to expose himself to the bull's horns.

The gangs haven't had a really satisfying rumble for years, due in part to Delaney's encouragement of a substitute form of rivalry between them—organized cock-fighting. This barbarous gambling "sport" is illegal on both sides of the border, but the reader is nevertheless treated to a sanguinary description of an epic chicken brawl….

Castillo leaves school, finds a job on a fishing boat, leads the crew in mutiny off Ecuador, gets locked up in a Guayaquil jail, escapes and makes his way back to California. This lively experience seems to mature him. No longer interested in random violence, he finds instead a cause, a confrontation between Chicano farmworkers and a vineyard owner who is bringing in a mechanical grape-picker. There is no evidence that Castillo's agricultural background extends beyond the nurture of an occasional marijuana plant, but he quickly becomes a natural leader, a 16-year-old Cesar Chavez.

To prevent general bloodshed during the strike, Castillo pulls another, final, espontáneo, this time with the grape-picking machine. The novel ends with this messy self-immolation.

What is Mr. O'Dell trying to tell us? Not, certainly, that Chicano culture has become so debased that it has meaning only in hopeless, violent anger. Yet, by implication, he says little more. The only baldly stated ethnic generality occurs when Delaney tells us that "Chicanos are good mechanics," which is patent balderdash. Like Albanian baritones, some are good and some are awful.

Perhaps his message is something like this: The Spanish-speaking people of the Southwest, who were once powerful and are now relatively impotent within the Anglo-Saxon hegemony, find a certain cultural strength in symbols—the rooster, the horse, the blade—and in melodramatic gesture. That may be the message, and it may even be true, but it's a tiny part of the truth.

Richard Bradford, in a review of "Child of Fire," in The New York Times Book Review, November 3, 1974, p. 24.

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