The Black Pearl by Scott O’Dell
HMH Editions for Young Readers, 2010 (reprint)
Available: Paperback, Audible, Kindle edition
Scott O’Dell is best known as a writer of historical fiction for children, particularly for novels set in California or Mexico. He is most well-known for his middle-grade survival story and Newbery Award-winning novel Island of the Blue Dolphins, as well as three Newbery Honor books: The King’s Fifth, Sing Down the Moon, and The Black Pearl. Inaddition to winning several additional awards, he also established one: The Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, which is awarded yearly to an American writer of an outstanding work of historical fiction for children. The Black Pearl, first published in 1967, is indeed a work of historical fiction– but it’s also a pretty terrifying book, with much of it devoted to a legendary sea monster, the Manta Diablo.
Sixteen year old Ramon Sandoval’s father is a pearl merchant, and has just made him a partner in the business. Ramon is eager to learn to dive for pearls, but his father has reservations. His father and the other pearl divers are large, muscled men, while Ramon is still not entirely grown. When Ramon finally convinces his father to take him on an expedition, he meets the Sevillano, a talented diver with a storehouse of outrageous stories about frightening monsters and giant pearls.
During his father’s next absence, Ramon, determined to prove himself, pays an Indian who has come to sell a pearl to teach him how to dive. He hopes to find the great pearl of the Sevillano’s stories: the Pearl of Heaven. The Indian warns Ramon of the Manta Diablo, a vengeful giant black manta ray who guards the pearls in his cave under the lagoon where the Indian dives. Despite the warning, Ramon dives into the cave, pries out a gigantic oyster, and finds an enormous black pearl. When the Manta Diablo discovers the cave is in disarray, it’s a race to escape home with the pearl before he is caught. Once revealed, the pearl garners a great deal of unwanted attention from the town, but despite its size and beauty, he and his father are unable to sell it. Ramon comes to believe the pearl is cursed and that he must return it to the monster, but the Sevillano has other ideas, and they embark on a dangerous voyage by water, chased by the Manta Diablo.
The story is framed by the introduction of the Manta Diablo, a local legend used by mothers to scare their children into behaving. Ramon, while not a believer, loves this story. The Sevillano, who has been out in the ocean, makes this a more believable story, and the Indian’s dread reinforces it. None of this is enough to convince the skeptical Ramon, who is determined to find the legendary Pearl of Heaven– when it comes to legends, apparently greed and ambition outweigh fear. As the novel progresses, the Indian’s dread is infectious, and Ramon actually begins to believe that there might really be some truth to the legend. The manta’s chase and the battle with the manta up the tension, although it’s certainly possible that Ramon is more terrified of the Sevillano than he is of the manta.
While the writing is somewhat stilted and dated, and the book starts with somewhat of a slow pace, once the pearl divers enter the scene the story becomes engaging, not just because Ramon is engaged in the experience, but because it is fascinating, and something most people know little about. As the book progresses, it’s interesting to see how his relationship with both his father and the Sevillano develop. Ramon’s experiences as he learns to dive in the lagoon are immersive; O’Dell’s descriptions are gorgeously written. Ramon’s interactions with the Indian at that time start to ratchet up the suspense, especially once Ramon enters the cave of the Manta Diablo. The legendary manta of terror and its appearances in the novel, be they through story or through Ramon’s perceptions of his experience, snagged this reader from the first page, and O’Dell’s suggestion that something can be both beautiful and evil is food for thought. Recommended for grades 4 and up.
Reader’s advisory note: Older children and teens who like this book might like The Pearl by John Steinbeck or The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway.
Content note: The representation of the Indians in the book as especially superstitious and violent is a talking point you might want to cover with your child, as well as the religious motivations behind some of the actions (not being Catholic, certain children thought the Madonna referred to in the story was the American pop singer, which caused some confusion).