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the black pearl

9 december 2013

The Black Pearl by Scott O'Dell, a Newbery Honor Book for 1968, is a breathless first-person adventure yarn set in some indeterminate era among the pearl divers of the Gulf of California. Our hero is Ramón Salazar, bred to be an officebound merchant but determined to prove his chops as a diver. Ramón is driven by Oedipal energies (his father is "a tall man with skin turned a deep bronze color from the glare of the sea … very strong," 7). Ramón also vies for young-male dominance with a cocky blond blue-eyed diver nicknamed The Sevillano. To any kid who still reads this book, junior high must look pretty weak by comparison.

The antagonist in the story is not really the Sevillano, though, but a preternatural force known as the Manta Diablo. It is seven, or ten, or a hundred times larger than your usual manta ray, which is a pretty big fish to begin with. Its dimensions aren't as scary as its powers, though. It's telepathic, and it's a shape-shifter; simply staying on dry land isn't much use, because it can turn itself into human form and rummage around the marketplace till it finds you and reads your mind.

The Manta Diablo guards the great Black Pearl of Heaven, and Ramón, more out of chutzpah than anything else, defies the big fish and grabs the big stone's big oyster. Ramón's father turns down an offer of 15 large and gives the pearl instead to the Catholic Church. Here the logic of the book becomes somewhat confusing even as its plot goes into overdrive, so I will cease summary so as not to spoil the book for you. As I said, it's a yarn, and it's well told.

It's hardly a coincidence that the Manta Diablo's initials are the same as Moby Dick's. The Sevillano is a sort of junior Ahab in the story, and Ramón, of course, the novel's Ishmael. The reader remains in as much doubt in The Black Pearl as in Melville whether the great creature is God or the Devil. You simply know that you're best off trying to avoid it; and of course you can't.

O'Dell, Scott. The Black Pearl. 1967. New York: Yearling [Random House], 1996.