Scott O'Dell

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Scott O'Dell



(Born Odell Gabriel Scott) American novelist, non-fiction writer, and author of young adult novels and picture books.

The following entry presents an overview of O'Dell's career through 2002. For further information on his life and career, see CLR, Volumes 1 and 16.


Among the most honored American authors of historical fiction for children, O'Dell received the 1961 Newbery Medal for Island of Blue Dolphins (1960), his first children's book, and was awarded Newbery Honor citations for The King's Fifth (1966), The Black Pearl (1967), Sing Down the Moon (1970), and Black Star, Bright Dawn (1988). Further, in 1972, he became the first ever American honoree of the Hans Christian Andersen Medal, a prestigious biennial award presented, in the words of the International Board on Books for Young People committee, for "lasting contribution to children's literature." O'Dell's canon is marked by his attempts to create a greater appreciation for Native and Latino cultures through his works, recognizing their many contributions to Western society, while simultaneously expressing strongly didactic messages regarding colonialism, natural conservation, and cultural and environmental exploitation. Often hailed as one the most important children's authors of the late twentieth century, O'Dell is the subject of a vast field of critical scholarship, which has recently begun to reexamine the author's literary legacy, seeking to clarify whether his portrayals of Native peoples were, in fact, culturally accurate. Nonetheless, his books, particularly Island of the Blue Dolphins, remain among the most popular examples of historical fiction in the children's literature genre.


O'Dell was born Odell Gabriel Scott on May 23, 1898, on Terminal Island (then called Rattlesnake Island), in Los Angeles, California. The son of May Elizabeth Gabriel and Bennett Mason Scott, O'Dell moved frequently around Southern California with his family during his childhood. His father, an official with the Union Pacific Railroad, was a distant relative of the acclaimed Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott, a connection O'Dell noted when discussing his literary heritage. After high school and a short service in the Army during World War I, he briefly attended several universities, including Occidental College in 1919, the University of Wisconsin in 1920, Stanford University from 1920 to 1921, and the University of Rome La Sapienza in 1925. At each college, O'Dell only took electives that interested him—particularly history, psychology, and literature—without a serious goal of gaining a degree. Upon leaving Stanford, O'Dell sought work in Hollywood, eventually gaining employment with the Palmer Photoplay Company, where he reviewed silent film scripts. This venture allowed him to publish his first book in 1924, Representative Photoplays Analyzed, which offered advice on how to edit amateur movie manuscripts. O'Dell later accepted a position with Paramount Pictures, which brought him to Italy to work as a cameraman on the 1925 version of Ben Hur, the most expensive silent film ever made. After the production was finished, O'Dell elected to remain in Rome to study and pursue a writing career. The novel he wrote during this period, Pinfeathers, was never published. O'Dell eventually returned to California, where he found work at the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Mirror. Indulging in his passion for history, he released his first novel, Woman of Spain: A Story of Old California, in 1934. At the onset of World War II, O'Dell enlisted in the military again, this time with the Air Force, and was stationed in Texas. After the war, he continued his publishing career, issuing two more novels, Hill of Hawk (1947) and Man Alone (1953) before returning to journalism, becoming the book editor for the Los Angeles Daily News. It was during this period that a typesetter, misreading the byline of "Odell Scott," mistakenly transposed the name as "Scott O'Dell," a name that so struck O'Dell that he eventually had his name legally changed to reflect the mistake. While working as a newspaper editor, O'Dell penned a travel guide of Southern California titled Country of the Sun:Southern California—An Informal History and Guide (1957). While researching the book, he heard the legendary tale of "The Lost Woman of San Nicholas Island," the true story of a Native Nicoleño woman—called Juana María by her rescuers—who was left stranded on one of California's Channel Islands for eighteen years in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1960 O'Dell authored a dramatic retelling of Juana María's tale, recasting the woman as a girl in Island of the Blue Dolphins. O'Dell passed along his manuscript to a friend and children's author, Maud Lovelace, the creator of the "Betsy-Tacy" series, who encouraged him to publish Island of the Blue Dolphins as a children's book. The book became a worldwide success, winning several major awards, which culminated with its presentation of the Newbery Medal, the highest honor in American children's literature. Surprised at the fantastic reception to his first work of children's fiction at the relatively advanced age of sixty-two, O'Dell was encouraged to write more works of historical fiction. Over two dozen more novels followed, making him perhaps the preeminent author of children's historical fiction during the 1960s and 1970s. In 1981, in an effort to give back to the literary community which had embraced him so warmly, he established the Scott O'Dell Historical Fiction Award, an annual award of $5,000 that recognizes outstanding works of historical fiction. Ironically, the presenting body, The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, presented O'Dell with his titular honor in 1986 for his biography of Sacagawea Streams to the River, River to the Sea. O'Dell was twice married, first to Jane Rattenbury and later to Elizabeth Hall. On October 15, 1989, O'Dell died from prostate cancer in Mount Cisco, New York. His wife, Elizabeth Hall, finished the author's in-progress final novel, Venus among the Fishes, releasing it posthumously in 1995.


O'Dell's first book for children won him almost immediate acclaim and established him firmly as an internationally known writer of historical fiction. Island of the Blue Dolphins is the story of Karana's eighteen years alone on the Island of the Blue Dolphins, how she came to be there, and what she did during much of her long period of isolation. She existed by providing herself with food from the sea and the island, by taming Rontu, one of the wild dogs that had killed her brother after the other members of her decimated tribe had been taken away, by taming other animals and birds, and by learning to make weapons. As a Robinsonade, or survival story, Island of the Blue Dolphins has few equals in children's literature. Based on the life of the "lost woman of San Nicolas," O'Dell's narrative was created from the few facts known about her. The woman lived by herself on San Nicolas Island off the coast of southern California from 1835 to 1853, when she was discovered living with "a dog in a crude house on the headland, dressed in a skirt of cormorant feathers." Little else is known about her because she could not speak any of the languages of the Indians living at Santa Barbara Mission where she was taken after her rescue. Set in 1853 at the Mission Santa Barbara in California, Zia (1976), a sequel to Island of the Blue Dolphins, is an episodic story told by Zia Sandoval, a mountain girl, about her and her brother Mando's aborted trip to the island where she thinks Karana, her aunt, may still be living. The reader learns how the whalers of the Boston Boy capture Zia and Mando on their way to the island to look for Karana and put them to work, how they escape, how Captain Cordova imprisons Zia when she will not help him find the Indians who have runaways from the Mission, how Karana and Zia have a few weeks of happiness before Karana dies of a mysterious sickness, and how Zia takes Karana's dog and returns to the mountains and her own people.

Told by seventeen-year-old Esteban de Sandoval, The King's Fifth, O'Dell's second novel for young readers, is set across much of Mexico and what is now the southwestern part of the United States during 1540 and 1541. Esteban is a mapmaker sailing with the fleet to supply Coronado until Captain Mendoza, by appealing to Esteban's desire to be the first to map the unknown lands north of Mexico, lures him away. Mendoza's one aim is to find the fabled cities of Cibola and their gold. Mendoza, three soldiers, Father Francisco, Zia—a young Indian girl who serves as their guide and interpreter—and Esteban do find gold, but it brings them nothing but grief. Mendoza is killed by his own dog; the soldiers either die or abandon the group; and Zia, seeing Esteban become infected with the fever for gold, abandons him and Father Francisco, leaving them to take the gold back to Mexico. Father Francisco begs Esteban to leave the gold, but Esteban will not. After Father Francisco dies in the Inferno—otherwise known as Death Valley—Esteban throws the gold into a bubbling sulphur pit and is put into prison in Vera Cruz for not giving the king his fifth of the treasure as required by law. Esteban's trial lasts for several weeks, during which time he recounts his search for gold with Mendoza. He is ultimately sentenced to three years in prison for withholding the king's fifth.

O'Dell's second Newbery Honor Book, The Black Pearl, is set in La Paz in Baja California before boats were powered by coal or oil. Ramón Salazar, who is sixteen, finds a large black pearl in a lagoon believed to be the home of the Manta Diablo, a huge manta ray about which there are numerous Native American legends and superstitions. Ramón's father, Blas Salazar, a pearl dealer with a fleet of five ships, gives the pearl to the Catholic Church when four pearl dealers refuse to pay his asking price. Even though Father Gallardos blesses Salazar's fleet before it leaves La Paz, the fleet and all the crew members, except Gaspar Ruiz, are lost in a storm. Thinking the Manta Diablo has brought about the death of his father and the loss of the fleet, Ramón steals the black pearl to throw it back into the lagoon where he found it, but Gaspar stops him, forcing Ramón to go with him by sea to Guaymas to help him sell the pearl. On the way, after being followed by the giant manta for many hours, Gaspar finally harpoons the beast and tries to kill it by climbing on its back and stabbing it. He drowns, and Ramón returns the pearl to La Paz, giving the pearl back to the Madonna, as a gift of adoration and love.

O'Dell wrote a number of other novels about the clash between Native Americans and Spanish or English conquerors. For example, Sing Down the Moon, another Newbery Honor Book, is based on the infamous Long Walk that American soldiers forced about 10,000 Navaho Indians to make in 1864 from their homes in Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico to Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Of the 8,491 Navahos that reached the fort, 1,500 died during their imprisonment, which lasted until 1868. O'Dell's fictional account is told by Bright Morning, a young Navaho woman from Canyon de Chelly, who made the Long Walk with her family and tribe. Themes of colonialism are further explored in depth in O'Dell's trilogy about the Spanish conquistadors—The Captive (1979), The Feathered Serpent (1981), and The Amethyst Ring (1983)—three novels set in Central and South America in the 1520s. The series centers on Julián Escobar, a sixteen-year-old seminarian, who in The Captive is drafted as the religious representative for a voyage from Spain under a young nobleman, Don Luis. Landing on the wrong island, Don Luis and his men exploit the natives and their gold; their ship later wrecks near a Mayan island with Julián apparently the only survivor. A Spanish dwarf, an earlier castaway on the island, introduces Julián as the legendary Mayan god Kukulcán, under whose impersonation Julián sets out to restore the ancient and once fabulous City of Seven Serpents.

Most of O'Dell's novels are based on historical events, but a few are set in the modern era, with present-day themes. Set in Big Loop, West Virginia, in 1965, Journey to Jericho (1969) is O'Dell's first book for children in the middle grades. After David Moore's father leaves his family behind in West Virginia to go to work in California, David, his mother, and sister follow a few weeks later—carrying with them a jar of Grandma's famous watermelon pickles. David carefully takes care of the jar all the way to Jericho, California, by wagon, train, plane, bus, and logging truck, only to drop them when his father holds out his arms to hug him. The jar breaks and pickles scatter, but David and his father just laugh. Child of Fire (1974) deals with gang wars between Hispanic teenagers, Alexandra (1984) tells the story of a young diver who discovers cocaine hidden in the sponges she harvests from the sea, Kathleen, Please Come Home (1978) offers a diary-form exploration of teenaged drug abuse among runaways, and Bright Dawn in Black Star, Bright Dawn faces the challenge of the Iditarod race in Alaska with intelligence and skill. Three of his best-known later works dealt with women from American history. Sarah Bishop (1980) explores the tragedies of the Revolutionary War through the experiences of one immigrant to Long Island, Streams to the River, River to the Sea: A Novel of Sacagawea reveals the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-1806 through the eyes of their Native American guide, Sacagawea, and The Serpent Never Sleeps (1987) highlights the life of Pocahontas in colonial Virginia.


At the height of his career, O'Dell was among the most honored writers in children's literature. During his lifetime, O'Dell was consistently lauded for the realism and emotive style that he brought to his works of historical fiction, particularly for his sensitive portrayals of indigenous cultures. Peter Roop has suggested that O'Dell "has skillfully chosen what details to include and has so skillfully used them in his fiction that thy become part of the organic whole not just tidbits of interesting information. Such close accuracy to historical detail is indicative of O'Dell's fidelity to history." However, since O'Dell's death, scholars have begun re-examining his literary canon, turning a sharper critical eye towards the author's perceived cultural awareness and use of stereotypes in his works. One of his most outspoken recent critics, Anita C. Tarr, has noted that, while O'Dell earnestly attempts to bring greater attention to neglected cultures, "the problem is that often he achieves this goal at the expense of character development and credibility, even historical accuracy." She has further argued that O'Dell inadvertently "perpetuat[es] the stereotype of the Native American that has been labeled the ‘stoic, humorless Indian.’" Similarly, Uvaldo Palmares, in her assessment of Child of Fire, has claimed: "Given its misrepresentation of crucial elements of the Chicano existence …, the book would more likely alienate those who know and misinform those who don't." Nevertheless, O'Dell has remained a critical favorite in many scholastic circles, several of whom have compared the author to Ernest Hemingway for his spare, economical prose style. However, despite his many award-winning tomes, O'Dell will forever be best remembered for his first work for young readers, Island of the Blue Dolphins. Discussing the novel's literary legacy, John Rowe Townsend has acknowledged that Island of the Blue Dolphins is a "sad story, yes; but the sadness of Island of the Blue Dolphins is of a singularly inspiring kind. Among all the Newbery Award winners there are few better books."


Young Adult Works

Island of the Blue Dolphins (young adult novel) 1960

The King's Fifth [illustrations by Samuel Bryant] (young adult novel) 1966

The Black Pearl [illustrations by Milton Johnson] (young adult novel) 1967

The Dark Canoe [illustrations by Milton Johnson] (young adult novel) 1968

Journey to Jericho [illustrations by Leonard Weisgard] (young adult novel) 1969

Sing Down the Moon (young adult novel) 1970

The Treasure of Topo-el-Bampo [illustrations by Lynd Ward] (picture book) 1972

The Cruise of the Arctic Star [illustrations by Samuel Bryant] (young adult novel) 1973

Child of Fire (young adult novel) 1974

The Hawk That Dare Not Hunt by Day (young adult novel) 1975

The 290 (young adult novel) 1976

Zia [illustrations by Ted Lewin] (young adult novel) 1976

Carlota (young adult novel) 1977; published in the United Kingdom as The Daughter of Don Saturnino, 1979

Kathleen, Please Come Home (young adult novel) 1978

The Captive (young adult novel) 1979

Sarah Bishop (young adult novel) 1980

The Feathered Serpent (young adult novel) 1981

The Spanish Smile (young adult novel) 1982

The Amethyst Ring (young adult novel) 1983

The Castle in the Sea (young adult novel) 1983

Alexandra (young adult novel) 1984

The Road to Damietta (young adult novel) 1985

Streams to the River, River to the Sea: A Novel of Sacagawea (young adult novel) 1986

The Serpent Never Sleeps: A Novel of Jamestown and Pocahontas [illustrations by Ted Lewin] (young adult novel) 1987

Black Star, Bright Dawn (young adult novel) 1988

My Name Is Not Angelica (young adult novel) 1989

Thunder Rolling in the Mountains [with Elizabeth Hall] (young adult novel) 1992

Venus among the Fishes [with Elizabeth Hall] (young adult novel) 1995

Other Works

Representative Photoplays Analyzed: Modern Authorship (nonfiction) 1924

Woman of Spain: A Story of Old California (novel) 1934

Hill of the Hawk (novel) 1947

Man Alone [with William Doyle] (novel) 1953

Country of the Sun: Southern California—An Informal History and Guide (nonfiction) 1957

The Sea Is Red: A Novel (novel) 1958

The Psychology of Children's Art [with Rhoda Kellogg] (nonfiction) 1967


Jon C. Stott (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Stott, Jon C. "O'Dell, Scott." In Children's Literature from A-Z: A Guide for Parents and Teachers, pp. 211-13. New York, N.Y.: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1984.

[In the following essay, Stott offers an introduction to O'Dell's literary canon, particularly his many works of young adult literature, most notably, Island of the Blue Dolphins.]

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

Peter Roop (essay date winter 1987)

SOURCE: Roop, Peter. "Scott O'Dell: Using History to Tell His Story." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 12, no. 4 (winter 1987): 172-75.

[In the following essay, Roop discusses O'Dell's use of historical fact as a starting point for his narratives in both Island of the Blue Dolphins and The King's Fifth.]

Scott O'Dell's novels Island of the Blue Dolphins and The King's Fifth are not exactly non-fiction; but their use of actual history reveals much about the relationship between facts and art. These novels exemplify the quality that writer Jill Paton Walsh has identified as the key element in historical fiction: "However good the description and incidentals which make up the setting, however deeply they enrich the novel, the heart of the matter is always the story—complex interactions of character and event." (219).

O'Dell was motivated to write Island of the Blue Dolphins out of a need to express his anger at the senseless and brutal slaughter of animals near his home in California. Being a native Californian and devotedly interested in the history of the part of the country, he was aware of the story of the Lost Woman of San Nicholas Island and modeled his story after hers. Island of the Blue Dolphins is therefore a unique blending of O'Dell's need to express himself, to tell his story, and the historical person and event which he selected as the vehicle to relate that story.

San Nicholas Island, the outer-most island of the eight Santa Barbara Islands, is a desolate, wind-scoured locale. Yet for centuries this lonely island was inhabited by tribes of coastal Indians who lived there hunting seal and otter, fishing the shoals, and exploiting the extensive abalone beds which still surround the home they called Gha-las-hat. There is not much known specifically about the prehistory of Gha-las-hat. What is known is that there was a bloody slaughter of the native inhabitants by a group of otter-hunting Kodiak Indians, or as O'Dell calls them in his book, Aleuts. It is also recorded by Heizer and Whipple that in 1830, just before the time of Island of the Blue Dolphins, there were "less than two score men, women, and children remaining of the once dense population" (274).

Seventy miles away from the wave-washed shores of Gha-las-hat, on the mainland coast of California, there was at this time a growing force which was to precipitate the standing of one woman and a child on the island. This force was the semi-enslavement of coastal Indians by the Franciscan missionary zealots, who pressed these peoples into service building their missions, tilling their fields, and herding their sheep. The need for more labor, as well as the fervent desire to convert these isolated pagans to Christianity, kindled the idea to remove the remaining few natives of Gha-las-hat to the mainland.

There were few sailing vessels along the lower California coast in the early 1800's. The persuasive Fathers, however, convinced a Captain Williams to take his ship to San Nicholas and bring the islanders to the mainland. As Williams approached Gha-las-hat a sudden storm raged, necessitating that the evacuation of the natives be hurried. In the rush to board the ship a mother was "apparently" separated from her child. After failing to persuade the Captain to return for the child, the distressed woman leapt into the seething sea and disappeared. Captain Williams, unable to bring his vessel about in the fierce wind and come to the woman's rescue, then sailed to the coast, where he told the story of the woman's heroic and seemingly doomed effort.

People were fascinated by the tale of this woman's devotion. Captain Williams became determined to return to San Nicholas and learn whether or not this brave woman and/or her child survived. But William's vessel encountered misfortune herself and sank, leaving no other ship available to make arduous voyage to the island for a number of years. In 1853 another vessel finally touched at San Nicholas. There the crew found a solitary woman and brought her to mainland, ending her eighteen years of lonely confinement on Gha-las-hat.

By selecting this history to tell his story of a girl's learning to revere life, O'Dell needed to conform to the outlines established by history: that the native tribe was small, that a woman and a child were isolated on the island, that the woman lived there in solitude for eighteen years, and that she was eventually rescued. This skeleton outline allowed O'Dell to flesh in the details of the woman's confinement with the fiction of his story, a story initiated by a present day anger but which found expression through an event of the historical past. O'Dell is not trying to tell history in Island of the Blue Dolphins. He is using history to tell his own story.

Inside the framework provided by history, O'Dell tells the story of Karana, his fictionalized "Lost Woman". This fiction necessitated that Karana, while following ‘her’ historical story, change and develop, interact with her situation, so that O'Dell's theme of reverence for life could find expression. Karana's personal growth is the story of the book.

The details of Karana's existence on the island: her dependence on abalone, the packs of wild dogs, her methods of cooking, fishing, and tailoring are all verified by the archaeological data concerning Indian life on Gha-las-hat. O'Dell has been extremely accurate in these details, painting them onto his canvas with skill and exactness. The incorporation of such detail gives the book its deeply-toned sense of verisimilitude.

Only in one detail does O'Dell move beyond what is the historian's account of the Lost Woman. Rather than a distressed mother going to the rescue of her accidently abandoned child, O'Dell has Karana plunge into the ocean to go to the aid of her stranded brother. Yet this apparent deviance from history is itself inaccurate, for the mother-child legend (which is recorded as history) is based upon the woman's account eighteen years after the event. Her account was delivered in sign language, as no speakers of her native tongue still lived to translate her magic story. Believing the abandonment of a child by its Indian mother impossible, even in the height of such confusion, O'Dell created his own version of the event, a version, which although fictionalized by himself, can be defended with as much validity as the historic legend.

History is fiction, as Walsh so ably demonstrated in her article of that title (219). O'Dell, believing in this instance that history has been romanticized, felt entirely free to create Karana in a way that confirmed to the factual contingencies of the Lost Woman's story: her leap into the ocean to save a child's life, be it brother (as it is in the book), sister, or baby, and the ensuing isolation which this act entailed.

In Island of the Blue Dolphins Scott O'Dell used his author's perogative to employ history to tell the story which he had to express. He carefully selected an historical person and incident which allowed him the freedom to relate his fiction and which gave him the structure from which to do so. For Scott O'Dell writes of the sameness of people through the ages and from the perspective that history is a valid connection to what we are now. He uses history, and with honest accuracy, to tell a story which welled up from deep within inside himself. By using history in this fashion O'Dell does not actually change history. Instead he expands it, using what Jill Paton Walsh so aptly termed what is "not known to be true" but never exceeding the boundaries of what is "known not to be true." (222). Because of O'Dell's style, historical concern, and evocative story, the reader receives a valuable book based upon history yet essentially outside of history, a story of growth, development, and the enrichment of a human life.

In The King's Fifth O'Dell uses a different approach to historical material. Rather than focusing on a specific person, as he did in Island of the Blue Dolphins, he concentrates instead on a broad historical incident. Both approaches, while quite different, are equally successful in their use of history to tell the author's own stories.

In The King's Fifth O'Dell tells the story of corruption of an individual that might ensue from an unchecked greed for unearned wealth. To tell this tale of avarice, O'Dell deftly selects a time in history when such greed was commonplace, the Spanish exploratory expeditions in the New World during the 1500's. One such venture, Coronado's expedition into what is now southwest North America, is the essential historical ingredient of this book.

In writing of Coronado's venture, O'Dell had to accurately adhere to the available histories of this expedition. This he does with remarkable skill and insight. But unlike Island of the Blue Dolphins, in which the beginning and the ending of the story were dictated by history, in The King's Fifth, O'Dell uses actual history in the first half of the book to establish time and place as well as to help in the creation of a believable character, who, in the latter half of the book goes beyond what is known to be true (history) into the vast realms of O'Dell's imagination (fiction).

The protagonist, Estaban de Sandoval, is a purely fictional character. It is through his eyes that O'Dell chooses to tell this story. And it is through his eyes that the reader sees many of the historical incidents which occurred at this time in the Spanish conquest of the Americas. At the book's beginning young Sandoval, in a prison cell from which he relates his story, muses upon where to begin his account of the adventures which befell him. He eventually decides that "it begins the morning Captain Mendoza first thought to seize command of the galleon San Pedro." (6). Sandoval then relates that he, as cartographer on the San Pedro, was copying and filling in Admiral Ulloa's chart of the Sea of Cortes.

Historical records show that Admiral Ulloa had sailed this sea shortly before the time depicted in The King's Fifth (1541). Ulloa's fleet later disappeared mysteriously in the Pacific. His charts of the Sea of Cortes fortunately had been safely returned to mainland Mexico. Certainly the real Admiral Alarcon, with whom the fictional Sandoval sailed, would have been aware of these charts, and therefore Sandoval's task of expanding and updating them is entirely in keeping with the actual history of the times.

Alarcon's mission to meet Coronado's overland army is another historical fact which O'Dell has used to firmly establish the setting of this story as well as to aid in the creation of the character of Sandoval. "He (the Viceroy de Mendoza) ordered Don Pedro de Alarcon to set sail with two ships … and hence to sail along the coast near the army." (14). This statement, recorded in Winship's The Journey of Coronado, is from one of the men who participated in the overall expedition.

O'Dell has effectively correlated the two historic personages (Alarcon and Coronado) who influence Sandoval. This use of history also pinpoints Sandoval to a historic time and place, providing the framework within which O'Dell is to tell his own story. From this point forward, many telling details of Coronado's expedition are used to give Sandoval's own story a high degree of authenticity.

Alarcon's ship never did meet with Coronado's army as planned. To get Sandoval ashore, O'Dell fashioned a fictional mutiny plot. This device serves not only to get Sandoval on the mainland but presents him with his first major decision: whether to remain loyal to Alarcon and stay aboard the San Pedro or to follow Captain Mendoza (the leader of the mutiny) and go ashore to fulfill his desire to map unknown regions, and thus gain fame and fortune. Here O'Dell is creating a protagonist who faces a personal dilemma, the choice between what is morally correct and what is most personally beneficial, a dilemma which provides a large portion of the tension which runs throughout the book.

Thus far in The King's Fifth O'Dell has carefully used historical information with fiction to create a believable, identifiable character who is to take the reader through the ensuing drama. The next portion of the book gives the reader further insights into the characters of Sandoval, Mendoza, and the minor persons who journey with them. It isn't until Sandoval and his companions join Coronado's army that there is once again an artistic conjunction of fact and fiction, perhaps the most telling of O'Dell's uses of history and fiction in this narrative. O'Dell is careful that the reader does not have any immediate contact with Coronado himself. He is always seen from the distance of Sandoval's observations. But the accuracy of Sandoval's journey with Coronado's forces, from his joining the army through the battle at Hawikuh, illustrates O'Dell's consistent fidelity to the history which he has chosen to use in relating Sandoval's fictional adventures.

There are numerous events and observations from Coronado's own letters, rewritten and woven into the fabric of the plot of The King's Fifth. Several such details help reveal the care with which O'Dell worked them into his plot and how he expanded them to fit his story. Coronado, in describing the hunger and hardship which his forces endured during their search for the Seven Cities of Cobola, wrote, "The horses were so tired that they were not equal to it, so that in the last desert we lost more horses than before" (Winship 166). O'Dell relates this same difficulty in this manner. "It was the horses that suffered most. At the end of the first week in the Despoblado (the desert) they began to die, two one day, three the next" (78). O'Dell then goes on to describe the hunger that drove some men to desperate measures to obtain food. "Three found a patch of wild parsnips, which they ate. The following day the three died in agony and were buried beside the trail. Their deaths cast a pall upon the army." (79). Coronado provides the factual basis for this description in the same lengthy letter already quoted. "A Spaniard named Spinosa, besides two negroes, died from eating some herbs, because the food had given out." (166).

In juxtaposing these two accounts of the same event, one eye-witness, the other fictional, it is possible to see how closely O'Dell works with his historical material. Coronado devotes little consideration to these incidents, as they were only a few of the many difficulties encountered by his troops. Yet O'Dell has selected them from among many others of similar impact to illustrate the dire straights in which the army (and thus Sandoval) found itself. O'Dell has taken details provided by history and reworked them to fit accurately and tellingly into his plot. And by adding "Their deaths cast a pall upon the army" (79) he goes beyond Coronado's actual words, filling in with fiction what is not given historically but what certainly must have been felt by the real men undertaking this perilous venture into an unknown land.

The best example of O'Dell's use of historical material is his description of the battle with the Indians at Hawikuh. Sandoval unwillingly accepts the matchlock gun which Captain Mendoza thrusts upon him preceding the battle with the Cibolans (as O'Dell calls the Indians at Hawikah). But like so many of the real soldiers at this confrontation, he never has the opportunity to fire the weapon. When the troops close to the foot of the walls at Hawikuh, the embattled Indians shower the invading soldiers with cobbles. Coronado describes the battle in these words:

I ordered the musketeers and crossbowmen to begin the attack and drive back the enemy from the defenses, so that they could not do us any injury. I assaulted the wall on one side, where I was told there was a scaling ladder and that there was also a gate. But the crossbowmen broke all of the strings of their crossbows and the musketeers could do nothing, because they had arrived so weak and feeble that they could scarcely stand on their feet. On this account the people who were on top were not prevented at all from defending themselves and doing us whatever injury they were able. Thus, for myself, they knocked me down to the ground twice with countless great stones which they threw down from above and if I had not been protected by the very good headpiece which I wore, I think the outcome would have been very bad for me. They picked me up from the ground, however, with two small wounds in my face and an arrow in my foot, and with many bruises on my arms and legs, and in this condition I retired from the battle, very weak. I think that if Don Garcia Lopez de Cardenas had not come to my help, like a good cavalier, the second time that they knocked me to the ground, by placing his own body above mine, I should have been in much greater danger than I was. But, by the pleasure of God, these Indians surrendered, and their city was taken with the help of our Lord, and a sufficient supply of corn was found there to relieve our necessities.
     (Winship, 170-71)

O'Dell describes this same fight scene but through Sandoval's eyes and with the ultimate consideration being to give insight into his character:

The shower grew so heavy that the horsemen could not draw near the walls. Crossbowmen and arquebusiers were brought up, but the strings of the bows, which had dried out in the heat of the long march, broke. The arquebusiers arrived so weak from hunger that they could not raise their weapons.

The soldiers set the ladder against the wall. Brandishing his sword, Coronado beckoned us to follow and began to climb toward the second parapet. He had mounted only half the length of the ladder when I heard the thud of stone upon steel. The sword dropped from Coronado's hand and slowly he fell backwards. His gilded morion rolled to my feet.

He lay stunned for a moment or two, then got to his knees, found his sword, and held it aloft. He was standing with one boot on the ladder, ready to mount again, as second stone struck him, this time with such force that he slid to the parapet and lay still … stones whistled downward through the air, but in that instant before they struck both Alvarado and Cardenas threw themselves across his body. Thus he was saved from further injury. Yet he was close to death, with bad wounds about his head and an arrow deep in his leg.

The juxtaposition of these two passages does much to show just how O'Dell takes factual material and in his own flowing style incorporates the history into his fiction. The only point of variance is that Coronado makes no mention of Alvarado's coming to his aid but knowing how closely O'Dell follows his research material, I suspect that other eyewitness accounts would verify Alvarado's actions.

Immediately following this witnessing of Coronado's stoning, Sandoval is in the very heart of the battle. Here O'Dell parts company with Coronado. The reader sees Sandoval's life and death struggle with an Indian warrior, a fight which provides the reader with further insight into the characters of Sandoval and Mendoza around whom much of the remainder of the book is built.

In retelling this battle scene O'Dell has used history to further his own story and to provide insight into Sandoval's character so that when he finally does come to terms with his own corruption by the gold, Sandoval's moral character is established. It is clear from O'Dell's use of major and minor details that he worked closely with Coronado's account and with those of other adventurers accompanying Coronado. While remaining true to much of what Coronado and the others have related, O'Dell employs this information, not as a factual listing of events and situations, but rather as a deeper-hued background which lends greater authenticity to the story and more depth to his characters.

O'Dell's extensive research is never apparent in The King's Fifth, for he has carefully chosen what details to include and has so skillfully used them in his fiction that they become part of the organic whole not just tidbits of interesting information. Such close accuracy to historical detail is indicative of O'Dell's fidelity to history. It is also indicative of his skill as a writer of fiction that he paints such detail onto his broad fictional canvas without his strokes becoming obvious. Just as one can detect an artist's brush strokes by stepping close to a painting, those individual strokes blend into the overall effect when viewed from the proper perspective.

O'Dell selected and used only those historical details which led his own story forward and not onto any diversionary tracks. If O'Dell had overburdened The King's Fifth with more historical information, the complex human interactions with events might well have been subjugated, the canvas cluttered, and the overall effect distorted. As it is, he dexterously used selected history to tell his story up to this point.

Shortly after the battle at Hawikuh, Sandoval and Mendoza leave Coronado's army to search for gold on their own. Even yet Sandoval clings to his belief that he is venturing forth to complete his map. Such a departure fits the nature of Coronado's expedition for he was continually sending out forays from the main body of the army to ascertain the nature of the country, its people, and its mineral wealth. Coronado and most of his army spent the following winter in the heartland of North America. Sandoval and Mendoza, however, leave Coronado somewhere near the Grand Canyon, and so does the reader. The remainder of The King's Fifth is a fictional story, and although embroidered with many minor historical details, it is essentially O'Dell's own story now, unrestricted by any specific historic persons or events.

As in Island of the Blue Dolphins, the main character in The King's Fifth is forced to make a decision about his own life. The decisions come in accepting or rejecting the conditions imposed by persons or events. Early in The King's Fifth Sandoval must decide whether or not to follow Mendoza on his greedy venture. The boy bases his decision to accompany Mendoza not on a similar lusting for gold but rather from the desire to gain reknown as a mapmaker. "I heard his (Mendoza's) words clearly, as if he were speaking to me at this moment ‘… the map you would make would be published in Seville … Everywhere. Overnight you would win reknown. A boy of sixteen, yet reknown in all the world.’ I gathered myself and almost against my will, took one step forward" (19). Here Sandoval makes his fateful step and for what appears to be a perfectly valid reason. But it is his human experience of having to live up to that decision, as well as what changes are wrought by it, that provides the force behind O'Dell's tale of greed and corruption. The critical, overwhelming and observably slow weaning of Sandoval away from his fervent desire to make an excellent map of the New World to the ardent, overpowering, and ultimately self-destructive greed for gold is the central story of The King's Fifth. What began as a selfish but altruistic goal becomes corrupted, until Sandoval becomes in essence another Mendoza, as Zia so astutely observes. "Hearing your words," she said quietly, "I think that it is Captain Mendoza who has come back from his grave and is talking" (233). Sandoval's angered response shows how far he has deviated from his original goal. "One or the other. It does not matter which" (233). His transformation appears complete.

But Sandoval has been so carefully created that the reader listens to his words but does not quite hear them. For there is innate goodness in Sandoval that has been established and shows that, while he might be flawed, he is not fatally flawed. In the book's conclusion, when Sandoval pours the ruinous gold into the boiling fumarole and then refuses to aid in its recovery, the story is brought full circle to a satisfactory conclusion. Sandoval has been put to his personal test of fire, and although burned and scarred, he has survived.

This central theme of greed and corruption has been told many times before in both history and fiction. But by combining history and fiction as he has in The King's Fifth, O'Dell had created a vital retelling of this theme. His story is of how one innocent, yet flawed young person, can be corrupted even against his own determination. It is a story very much of the present yet told of the past, a unique blending of actual history with the fiction of O'Dell's own story.

Both Island of the Blue Dolphins and The King's Fifth demonstrate how Scott O'Dell expertly combines history with his fictions to write two books which are neither history nor fiction. They straddle the fence between nonfiction and fiction with a foot firmly planted in both worlds. Yet they stand on their own, for O'Dell's historical fiction reveals something of human nature, then and now.


Heizer, R. F. & Whipple, M. A. The California Indians. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971.

O'Dell, Scott. Island of the Blue Dolphins. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1960.

O'Dell, Scott. The King's Fifth. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1966.

Walsh, Jill Paton. "History Is Fiction." Crosscurrents of Criticism. Boston: The Horn Book, 1977.

Winship, George Parker. The Journey of Coronado. New York: Allerton Book Company, 1973.

James E. Higgins (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Higgins, James E. "O'Dell, Scott." In Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, Third Edition, edited by Tracy Chevalier, pp. 735-36. Chicago, Ill.: St. James Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Higgins presents a critical overview of O'Dell's career as a children's author, praising O'Dell's ability to create realistic and varied narrative points-of-view.]

It's a pity if any adult reader who loves historical adventure stories of the first rank misses the works of Scott O'Dell merely because they are labeled as "juveniles." It has only been in recent years, with explicit depiction of sex and violence, that much of the adult fare in the genre, which has its roots in the works of Scott and Dumas, has become unsuitable for younger readers. If O'Dell were writing 40 to 50 years ago he would undoubtedly have been in the company of such writers as C. S. Forester, Nordhoff and Hall, and Kenneth Roberts; and a generation or two before that with Stevenson, Henty, Marryat, Dana, and Jack London. These writers had broad appeal, but perhaps their most enthusiastic audience consisted of readers between the ages of 12 and 16. O'Dell, after a long and successful career as a journalist, historian, and writer for adults, found that audience with the publication of Island of the Blue Dolphins.

When O'Dell speaks of himself as a practitioner in the field of children's literature he uses the term "writer of books that children read," rather than "writer of children's books." Indeed, O'Dell's strength as a writer for children is best explained by the fact that he does not write directly for them. As he says: "Books of mine which are classified officially as books written for children, were not written for children. Instead, and in a very real sense, they were written for myself. There is about them, however, one distinction which I feel is important to this form of literature: they were written consistently in the emotional area that children share with adults." O'Dell also recognizes that the young reader "has the ability, which in adults is either eroded or entirely lost, to identify himself with the characters of a story." So rather than write with a child audience in mind, O'Dell aesthetically disciplines himself by selecting a young person to narrate his tales. Indeed, he is a master of first-person narrative, which in itself is not only the unifying and coherent influence which heightens the truth and significance of his stories, but also the element which assimilates into the tales all of the author's research, personal knowledge, and experience, without a single trace of pedantic or didactic intrusion.

O'Dell is, in a very real way, a different person each time he tells a story. This gives each of his books an individual quality that is uniquely suited for its natural and cultural setting. The cadence of the narrative voice, the metaphorical symbols, and the limiting perimeters of the narrator's scope, all unite to produce a story that is plausible and consistent, and poetically satisfying as well.

Karana, the Indian girl of Island of the Blue Dolphins, begins her story: "I remember the day the Aleut ship came to our island. At first it seemed like a small shell afloat in the sea. Then it grew longer and was a gull with folded wings." In contrast, Bright Morning in Sing Down the Moon tells a Navajo story in the natural rhythms and allusions of Navajo speech. "The day the waters came was a wonderful day. I heard the first sounds of their coming while I lay awake in the night. At first it was a whisper, like a wind among the dry stalks of our cornfield. After a while it was a sound like the feet of warriors' dancing. Then it was a roar that shook the earth."

O'Dell's stories are vivid in locale and authentic in historical background and detail. Several of them, like The Black Pearl and The Dark Canoe, are set in the coastal region of southern California, a setting with which he is very familiar; while others, such as The King's Fifth, are set further inland around the canyon country of southwestern United States. In a trilogy of grand scope (The Captive, The Feathered Serpent, and The Amethyst Ring ) O'Dell captures the history, lore, and landscape of New Spain during the time of the bloody conquest of the Aztecs and their emperor, Montezuma, by Hernando Cortez.

In his most recent historical novels, O'Dell has returned to the story element for which he is best-known by so many young readers: an adventurous female protagonist and first-person narrator. These later works are of varied sophistication. The Road to Damietta is not a conventional historical novel. It is the story of the transformation of Francis Bernardone from a bon vivant to the ascetic saint of Assisi, as narrated by an aristocratic young woman who is madly in love with him. The Serpent Never Sleeps: A Novel of Jamestown and Pocahontas is seen through the eyes of Serena Lynn, a tempestuous young heroine. It is in Streams to the River, River to the Sea that O'Dell returns again to the simple straightforward narration that made Island of the Blue Dolphins such a memorable work. In this book the remarkable young Shoshone girl Sacagawea gives her own account of her extraordinary adventures with the Lewis and Clark expedition. The verisimilitude of this historical novel brings Sacagawea to life in a manner that no biographic work has been able to achieve. It is O'Dell at his very best—and that is high praise indeed.

Susan Naramore Maher (essay date December 1992)

SOURCE: Maher, Susan Naramore. "Encountering Others: The Meeting of Cultures in Scott O'Dell's Island of the Blue Dolphins and Sing Down the Moon." Children's Literature in Education 23, no. 4 (December 1992): 215-27.

[In the following essay, Maher asserts that O'Dell's Native American heroines in Island of the Blue Dolphins and Sing Down the Moon work in opposition to the typical portrayal of Native American females in popular culture.]

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C. Anita Tarr (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Tarr, C. Anita. "Apologizing for Scott O'Dell—Too Little, Too Late." Children's Literature 30 (2002): 199-204.

[In the following essay, Tarr disagrees with David L. Russell's critical study of O'Dell in the Twayne biography Scott O'Dell, arguing that Russell undervalues several legitimate criticisms of O'Dell's literary legacy.]

Scott O'Dell certainly deserves a Twayne book. A decade after his death, it is time to offer a retrospective analysis to help us reflect on O'Dell's reputation, his development as a writer, and his impact on children's literature. This Twayne book is a solid exercise in New Criticism, examining theme, characterization, plot structure, and style, but unfortunately it does not go beyond that. Russell has divided O'Dell's many works into logical groupings: adult works; Island of the Blue Dolphins ; novels set in the Old Southwest; literary experiments; the Seven Serpents trilogy; present-day realistic novels; and the last few historical novels. All this is followed by a "critical assessment," which sums up O'Dell's alleged strong and weak points as a writer for children and young adults. Rather than offering much in-depth analysis, however, Russell is apologetic about O'Dell:

If he [O'Dell] seemed to develop little as a writer of children's books during his career, we must not forget that he began that career fairly well at the top … produc[ing] a Newbery Medal winner and three Newbery Honor Award books…. Ultimately it will be these works on which O'Dell must and should be judged.

I am not convinced that any artist should be judged only on his/her best work, least of all O'Dell. It has always disturbed me that this author of mediocre historical novels for adults was awarded accolades when he began writing for children.

Russell's first chapter provides the most surprising information: Scott O'Dell was not his true name at all; he was originally named Odell Gabriel Scott and legally changed his name after a publisher transposed the first and last name and he thought Scott O'Dell sounded more like a writer. His birthdate, too, is often incorrect: he was born in 1898 (not 1903, as often stated). While he did begin publishing newspaper articles and even a book in 1924 on popular photoplays (screenplays), his career for a long time was that of a cameraman and part-time writer. He was already in his sixties when a new career of writing for children took hold, and he kept at it, with his second wife's help and support, until he died in 1989. The information presented in this chapter serves as a necessary precursor to the later chapters that deal with O'Dell as a writer. Nevertheless, from Russell's viewpoint, there does not seem to be much connection between O'Dell the cameraman and friend to Hollywood and O'Dell the children's writer. Other critics (e.g., Leon Garfield) have said that O'Dell's novels read like film scripts, but Russell does not develop the cinematic connection to the writing other than that there is "an almost cinematic quality" in O'Dell's later works, especially with his "lively action and colorful characters … and his aversion to both lengthy exposition and philosophical musings" (11). This seems like a missed opportunity, for O'Dell's early fascination with film might help explain his problems with character development, a problem that Russell recognizes throughout: "As would be true of his entire writing career, character development is not O'Dell's strong suit" (13).

It might be a surprise to some that O'Dell was a half-hearted writer for adults earlier in his career. Russell summarizes his three early novels and helps us see them as a kind of apprenticeship allowing for O'Dell to work through several recurrent themes: his abhorrence of slavery, of greed, and of the treatment of Native Americans. Russell, however, gives scant attention to Country of the Sun: Southern California, An Informal History and Guide (1957), which is particularly unfortunate because it is here that we see the beginnings of so many of O'Dell's later stories, including "The Lost Woman of San Nicholas"—that is, Karana (the heroine of Country jumps ship because her child, not her brother, has been left on shore). We also see the scandalous behavior of a Spanish woman who refused to ride side-saddle, as do Carlota and other O'Dell characters; we read of the Spanish landowners and their customs, reused in Carlota ; and we are given a partial telling of the journey of Coronado, expanded later in The King's Fifth. Undeniably, O'Dell's fiction written for adults is important for children's literature critics to examine, so we can see how these full-blown treatments were reformatted (watered down, frankly) into the plots and characters of his children's novels.

Most readers applaud O'Dell for one book, Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960), because it covers three areas of concern: multiculturalism, gender stereotypes, and environmental awareness. No one would dispute that Karana, as both female and Native American, displays a very progressive view toward nature. Russell, however, does not delve below the surface in his analysis of this novel. Russell praises the novel's structure, as the chapters alternate between mundane domestic affairs and adventure, and he states that Island "exudes a poignancy and dignity that the author was never to equal again" (36), an opinion I share. Like other reviewers, Russell employs the adjective "stoic" to describe Karana as well as other of O'Dell's Native-American characters, such as Sacajawea, even though we must assume that the Ghalas-at and Shoshone nations are different cultures. I would maintain that O'Dell basically uses the same style of writing no matter who is narrating in first person—a Native-American girl, a Spanish boy, an English woman. For some characters, the style seems stilted and unrealistic, but for others, such as Karana, it works. Russell does not consider the idea that Karana's speech appears natural simply because she sounds like a Hollywood Indian, using no contractions, resisting any emotional display, appearing stoic.

Similarly, Russell's analysis of Island 's strongest point—Karana—falls short. O'Dell claims that originally his editor wanted the main character changed to a boy, but he was appalled at the thought because the story is based on an actual occurrence ("Scott" 357). Russell states that a constant agenda of O'Dell's is providing strong female characters. Karana is praised because she knowingly breaks the tribal taboo of making weapons, and she survives on her own while creating her own moral values about animals. But are Karana's more sensitive values developed out of necessity, because she is alone and needs companionship? Because she is a woman? Because she is Native American? Does it matter? One of the hallmarks of O'Dell's writing, for both adults and children, is the focus on females who subvert their cultures' expectations. Surely some feminist criticism would have been valuable here to help guide the discussion of this very important issue.

Unfortunately, as with Island, Russell offers no real discussion about Carlota (1977) and the titular character's changing sensibilities (in chapter 4). He outlines examples of how she proves her physical strength, how she rides a horse like a boy and is treated like her father's lost son. At this point, she has taken on the role of an obedient son, and she must acquiesce to all her father's decisions. Then she rebels. Again, I would have liked more theoretical context: is it because O'Dell's heroines are physically more free that they desire more personal and moral freedom, to run their own lives, to activate their modern ideologies? At the least, O'Dell's female characters deserve more study in the future. Susan Naramore Maher's essay that labels O'Dell's stories of the Old Southwest as "counterwesterns" is oddly absent from Russell's discussion (it is only listed in the selected bibliography). His descriptions of O'Dell's novels about the Old Southwest could have benefited from Maher's analysis of how "O'Dell gave voice to the oppressed, to those who lost their lands and their cultures" (216), and how his "female narrators are significant agents in his revisionist tales" (226).

In the last chapter, "Critical Assessment," Russell lists five major roles for which we should remember O'Dell: as a consummate storyteller; as a historical novelist; as a moralist; as an environmentalist; and as a multiculturalist. All these areas that are alleged by Russell to be strengths are nonetheless problematic. Russell outlines O'Dell's basic formula for writing, which involves a character developing a moral code that is at odds with the environment around him/her. But O'Dell is "seldom elegant" or "seldom reflective" (121), and the first-person narrator, the use of which O'Dell refused to abandon, often is too limited to tell the story. O'Dell gave his characters twentieth-century attitudes, but Russell still praises the smooth inclusion of historical details. Russell could have used some of Suzanne Rahn's suggestions to help illuminate O'Dell's purposes for writing historical fiction: to preserve the past? to provide hope for the present? to both comment on and guide the present? Moralist is clearly the most fitting of descriptors. His agenda to create characters who are sensitive to others' needs is an admirable one; the problem is that often he achieves this goal at the expense of character development and credibility, even historical accuracy. Russell sees O'Dell's environmental philosophy as fairly simple—that human beings and nature should live in harmony, best exemplified by Karana. Russell himself finds the most questionable label for O'Dell is that of multiculturalist. In this section Russell devotes a few paragraphs to the criticisms of O'Dell's portraits of minority cultures, especially Hispanic and Native American. Russell recounts these criticisms briefly but does not really argue against them; instead he tries to point out that any negative portraits in O'Dell's novels are balanced by more positive ones, or, in defense of Black Star, Bright Dawn (1988), quoting Ellen Sallé, that Inuit children wrote him to tell him of their appreciation for his portrayal of their culture. Russell reminds us that "O'Dell was among the first children's authors to portray Native American characters with sympathy for their mistreatment at the hands of the Europeans and European Americans and with respect for their cultural beliefs and mores" (128). Russell ends this section and the book with an appeal that, since O'Dell received so many accolades, we should be satisfied with that and, I assume, be quiet.

And that is my major concern with this book. Russell, I feel, has muzzled a lot of critics, not just those who write negatively about O'Dell's talent, but even those who, basically sympathetic, could have helped place O'Dell's work in perspective, such as Maher, Rebecca Lukens, and John Townsend. Malcolm Usrey's DLB essay on O'Dell offers good critical analysis of almost all of the children's novels but is used only piecemeal by Russell. Granted, this is not a book intending to describe the critical reception of O'Dell—this clearly is Russell's statement only—but there are other voices that should have been heard as well. Other critics have written about O'Dell's pilfering from his earlier works and about his stereotyping, but they get little or no recognition here. When Isabel Schon calls O'Dell a "dilettante historian" who "promote[s] gross misconceptions" of pre-Columbian and Hispanic cultures (322-33), I think we should listen very carefully. When Leon Garfield laments O'Dell's unemotional, uninvolving characters, I think we should pay attention. We should continue to ask questions about O'Dell and not assume that, because he has published, because he has won awards, he is beyond reproach.

So what can Russell's book on O'Dell offer readers? He is especially good at analyzing how O'Dell's insistence on using first-person narrators often had detrimental effects on plot and character development. (O'Dell claimed first-person narration was just easier [123]). And he has offered valuable critiques of the novels' structure regarding cohesion and clarity. He has brought to light O'Dell's frequent criticisms of institutionalized Christianity, which are not at all at odds with the characters' basic humanitarian values. He has confirmed the reviewers' oft-mentioned problems with O'Dell's character motivation. And he has brought together O'Dell's strengths—especially as suspenseful storyteller, moralist, and environmentalist. All of this would be useful for a general audience, apparently Twayne's goal. But as long as O'Dell is being recommended on the basis of his awards—and he still is—I would like to see this book as a beginning, not an end, to O'Dell scholarship. It should not have the last word.

Works Cited and Consulted

Garfield, Leon. "Young Man among the Mayans." Review of The Captive, by Scott O'Dell. Washington Post/Book World. March 9, 1980, page 7.

Maher, Susan Naramore. "Encountering Others: The Meeting of Cultures in Scott O'Dell's Island of the Blue Dolphins and Sing Down the Moon." Children's Literature in Education 23.4 (1992): 215-27.

Rahn, Suzanne. "An Evolving Past: The Story of Historical Fiction and Nonfiction for Children." Lion and the Unicorn 15 (1991): 1-26.

Schon, Isabel. "A Master Storyteller and His Distortions of Pre-Columbian and Hispanic Cultures." Journal of Reading 29 (January 1986): 322-25.

"Scott O'Dell: Immortal Writer." American Libraries (June 1973): 356-57.

Tarr, C. Anita. "Fool's Gold: Scott O'Dell's Formulaic Vision of the Old West." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 17 (spring 1992): 19-24.

———. "An Unintentional System of Gaps: A Phenomenological Reading of Scott O'Dell's Island of the Blue Dolphins." Children's Literature in Education 28 (June 1997): 61-71.

Usrey, Malcolm. "Scott O'Dell." Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 52: American Writers for Children since 1960: Fiction. Ed. Glenn E. Estes. Detroit: Gale Research, 1986. 278-95.



John T. Gillespie and Diana Lembo (review date 1967)

SOURCE: Gillespie, John T., and Diana Lembo. Review of Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O'Dell. In Junior-plots: A Book Talk Manual for Teachers and Librarians, pp. 47-50. New York, N.Y.: R. R. Bowker Company, 1967.

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Carolyn T. Kingston (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: Kingston, Carolyn T. "The Tragic Moment: Loss: Island of the Blue Dolphins." In The Tragic Mode in Children's Literature, pp. 146-48. New York, N.Y.: Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 1974.

[In the following essay, Kingston studies how Karana, the protagonist of Island of the Blue Dolphins, functions as a tragic heroine.]

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C. Anita Tarr (essay date June 1997)

SOURCE: Tarr, C. Anita. "An Unintentional System of Gaps: A Phenomenological Reading of Scott O'Dell's Island of the Blue Dolphins." Children's Literature in Education 28, no. 2 (June 1997): 61-71.

[In the following essay, Tarr suggests that, while the intentions behind O'Dell's characterizations in Island of the Blue Dolphins should be applauded, the author's misrepresentations of Latino and Native American cultures must be taken into account when reviewing his literary legacy.]

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Erica Bauermeister (review date 1997)

SOURCE: Bauermeister, Erica. Review of Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O'Dell. In Let's Hear It for the Girls: 375 Great Books for Readers 2-14, p. 149. New York, N.Y.: Penguin Books, 1997.

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David L. Russell (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Russell, David L. "Island of the Blue Dolphins." In Scott O'Dell, pp. 25-36. New York, N.Y.: Twayne Publishers, 1999.

[In the following essay, Russell provides an in-depth analysis of Island of the Blue Dolphins, lauding O'Dell's creation of a stoic yet emotionally compelling character in Karana.]

The human heart, lonely and in need of love, is a vessel which needs replenishing.
     —O'Dell, quoted in Something about the Author

Scott O'Dell did not intend to write a children's book when he wrote Island of the Blue Dolphins. He was genuinely surprised when it was suggested to him that it belonged on the juvenile list. He once said,

I didn't know what young people were reading and I didn't consider [Island of the Blue Dolphins ] a children's book, necessarily. [It] was a protest against the hunters who came into our mountains and killed everything that crept or walked or flew.

I sent the story to my agents. They sent it back to me by return mail, saying that if I was serious about the story I should change the girl to a boy, because girls were only interested in romance and such. This seemed silly to me. So I picked up the story, went to New York City, and gave it to my editor, who accepted it the next day. When it won the Newbery Medal, I was launched into writing for children and young adults.
     (Hopkins, 133-34)

O'Dell never returned to writing adult novels. This was the beginning of virtually a new career for O'Dell. He was finally reaping the rewards of his long years of apprenticeship. Then came an even greater surprise—Island of the Blue Dolphins was awarded the Newbery Medal for the most distinguished contribution to children's books in America. Even though O'Dell was a seasoned writer, for a first-time children's author to win the Newbery Medal is an astonishing feat. It was the beginning of a brilliant decade of one award-winning book after another.

Island of the Blue Dolphins would win numerous other awards, both national and international, including the German Juvenile International Award, the Nene Award, the OMAR Award, the Rupert Hughes Award, the Southern California Council on Literature for Children and Young People Notable Book Award, and the Hans Christian Andersen Award of Merit. The book appears on most lists of modern classics and ranks with the finest American fiction for young people written in the last half of the twentieth century.


Scott O'Dell wrote that Island of the Blue Dolphins "began in anger, anger at the hunters who invade the mountains where I live and who slaughter everything that creeps or walks or flies. This anger was also directed at myself, at the young man of many years ago, who thoughtlessly committed the same crimes against nature."1 O'Dell wrote his novel because he thought that it would reach a larger audience than the letter to the editor he originally planned to write. O'Dell rather modestly described Island of the Blue Dolphins as a book "about a girl who kills animals and then learns reverence for all life" (Roop, 751). He could not have anticipated that the work would forever alter the course of his life. After Island of the Blue Dolphins, O'Dell would discover that his passion for history and his desire to reach young people with his messages of determination, self-reliance, and humanitarianism provided him with a well-spring of ideas that kept him occupied right up to his death.

As early as the 1920s, O'Dell learned the true story of the "Lost Woman of San Nicolas." From the few facts known about her, he would weave an engaging survival story recounting the 18 years she spent alone on the island. San Nicolas is one of the smallest of the channel islands off the shore of Los Angeles, and it is now uninhabited. But in the early nineteenth century, a small tribe of indigenous people occupied its desolate landscape. The woman was left on the island in 1835 when the rest of the inhabitants were removed by the Americans to the mainland. Reportedly, she jumped from the ship into the sea and swam back to her home, efforts to restrain her having failed. It was not until 1853 that she was discovered again and then removed to Santa Barbara Mission, where little could be learned from her because her own people, in a subsequent tragedy, had not survived and no one else spoke her language. A Father Gonzales at the mission learned that she had a brother who was killed by wild dogs on the island. And she was discovered wearing a skirt of green cormorant feathers, which, according to O'Dell, was sent to Rome. From these bits of information, O'Dell constructed his story of courage, loneliness, and the need for love and understanding in the world.


The story of Island of the Blue Dolphins is a straightforward narrative told by Karana, the daughter of the chieftain in the village of Ghalas-at. Her people are a small and impoverished tribe, eking out a living on a barren island, its only significant resource being the sea otters coveted by the Aleuts who arrive in their sailing vessel (captained by a Russian) at the book's opening. Karana's father makes a deal with the Aleuts, bargaining for half the otter pelts they acquire. These pelts Karana's people will then exchange with the Aleuts for beads and other trinkets. The natives of Ghalas-at are therefore condoning the slaughter of animals for mere material gain and display no special ecological sensitivity. In fact, the chieftain laughs at his daughter's "foolishness" when she expresses a concern that the Aleuts might slay all the sea otters. This exchange foreshadows one of the book's principal themes, the importance of humanity's respect for animals.

Several other important aspects of the Aleuts' visit should be noted. First, Karana hears word of a girl accompanying the Aleuts. This is Tutok, who will reappear several years later and form a friendship with Karana. Second, several of the Aleuts' dogs join the wild pack on the island. One of these dogs eventually becomes Rontu, Karana's closest companion on the island during her solitude. Third, Karana has misgivings when her father readily gives his secret name to Captain Orlov, the Russian leader of the Aleut expedition. Karana later becomes certain that this revelation robbed him of his power and contributed to his defeat and death. Years later, Karana will reveal her secret name to Tutok, a sure sign of her trust.

On a less metaphysical level, Karana's father angers the Aleuts in several ways—he drives a hard bargain regarding the otter pelts, and he refuses to share a catch of fish with the hungry Aleuts, preferring to feed his own people first. The built-up antagonism results in a bloody battle between the Aleuts and the people of Ghalas-at, and when it is over, not only Karana's father but most of the young men of the tribe lie dead, and the survivors find it impossible to rebuild their lives with their decimated numbers. The new chief, Kimki, is an elderly man who sees the only hope in his sailing east to the mainland to search for a place to resettle. Kimki's mission to the mainland is successful, and a white man's ship arrives to take the tribe off the island. But as the ship is ready to leave the harbor, Karana's younger brother, Ramo, returns to the village to retrieve his fishing spear. Refusing to leave her brother behind, Karana jumps overboard, and the ship departs, leaving them stranded on the island—in this way O'Dell invents the pieces missing from the historical account.

Almost immediately, Ramo, who is boastful and immature, disappears, and Karana soon finds his lifeless body surrounded by the pack of wild dogs that roam the island. Thus the scene is set for O'Dell's survival story, unusual for its time because its protagonist is female and a member of a native tribe. Our immediate interest is in how she will overcome the hardships of life on the island and how she might, if ever, be rescued.

After her brother's death, Karana is desolate with grief and remains in the village eating what remains of the store of abalones. But in time, she realizes that she must leave it forever: "I had never noticed before how silent the village was. Fog crept in and out of the empty huts. It made shapes as it drifted and they reminded me of all the people who were dead and those who were gone. The noise of the surf seemed to be their voices speaking."2 Karana builds a fire and burns the village so that only ashes remain. This drastic step is necessary if she is to move forward and prepare for her own survival. She must erase the haunting memories and free herself to start life anew. Karana also knows that to defend herself against the wild dogs, she will need weapons. At Ramo's death she had vowed that she would "kill the wild dogs in the cave. I would kill all of them" (Island, 48). However, because tribal custom has forbidden women access to weapons, she knows neither how to make them nor how to use them, and, perhaps more important, she must struggle with her conscience to overcome the taboo. Karana must do some deep soul-searching:

Would the four winds blow in from the four directions of the world and smother me as I made the weapons? Or would the earth tremble, as many said, and bury me beneath its falling rocks? Or, as others said, would the sea rise over the island in a terrible flood? Would the weapons break in my hands at the moment when my life was in danger, which is what my father had said?
     (Island, 54)

For two days and three nights she ponders the question, and when the wild dogs return, her resolve is firm: "I made up my mind that no matter what befell me I would make the weapons" (Island, 54). And so Karana, out of necessity, further unburdens herself of the past, a visible sign of her growing self-reliance.

After the passage of two winters and an aborted attempt to reach the mainland in a canoe, Karana decides to build a permanent shelter on the island. The details of these efforts are standard fare for survival fiction, as are the details strewn throughout the book of her seeking food and fashioning clothing—skirts from yucca plants and a garment of stunning cormorant feathers. Where O'Dell breaks ranks with earlier writers of survival stories is in his portrayal of the development of Karana's sensibilities as well as her self-reliance. Initially, of course, Karana interacts with her world from the perspective of her tribal mores and customs. She first decides to make a spear using the tooth of a sea elephant and sets out to kill one of the creatures, but she fails and is herself nearly killed in the attempt. She seeks shelter in a cave so that she might nurse herself back to health. Several days later she finds the remains of the old bull sea elephant she had tried to kill—he had been killed by a younger bull—and she finds the tooth she needs for her spear. The processes of nature did for her what she could not do herself.

Her next encounter is with the wild dogs, but this time she wins. Karana kills four of the dogs, but she is fascinated with one particularly large dog that she is sure was one left by the Aleuts. Managing to wound him, she nurses the dog back to health and names him Rontu—"Fox Eyes." Because he has once been tame, redomesticating him is not particularly difficult. Thus she makes a companion out of her great enemy. This is one of the turning points of the story, representing her capacity to forgive, a necessity if she is to survive long on the island. Rontu not only gives her much-needed companionship, but, when he overcomes the leader of the wild dogs, he effectively removes the pack as a menace to Karana.

Karana's relationship with Rontu marks the beginning of a significant transformation in her character. At one point, shortly after she befriends Rontu, she kills a deadly octopus, an event that would normally signify a rite of passage and engender a sense of pride. But Karana feels no sense of triumph, only a strange emptiness that she herself is at a loss to explain. She reports simply that "I saw two more giant devilfish along the reef that summer, but I did not try to spear them" (Island, 124). Her developing respect for animals is the logical evolution of the sensitivity she displayed earlier, in the third chapter of the book, when she expressed revulsion at the Aleuts' killing of an otter. At that time she confessed, "I was angry, for these animals were my friends" (Island, 16). Her love of the animal world is now extending to even those animals who could pose threats to her. It is an example of her maturity that she recognizes the world is not for human beings alone.

But she has not completely divested herself of her past. On an expedition she discovers the burial place of one of her ancestors in a sea cave where she is forced to spend the night because of the rising tide. It is a frightening experience for her, although she realizes she should have nothing to fear from the bones deposited there. The entire episode is haunting with its descriptions of eerie figures with blank faces and glittering abalone discs as eyes, with a human skeleton propped "against the wall with its knees drawn up and in its fingers, which were raised to its mouth, a flute of pelican bone" (Island, 128). During the long night, Karana refuses to look back at the skeleton and the glittering eyes, and when she is finally able to leave, Karana dubs the place Black Cave and vows never to return. She goes home, leaving behind her the last vestigial ties to her former life. Now she readies herself for the anticipated coming of the Aleuts.

The arrival of the Aleuts poses a significant threat, but it also offers an unusual opportunity. They are accompanied by a girl named Tutok, who discovers Karana in hiding making her skirt of cormorant feathers. Karana distrusts her at first, but when Tutok gives her a gift of a necklace, she knows her secret is safe. A close bond is knit between them, and Karana even divulges to Tutok her secret name. The fact that Rontu approaches Tutok and lets her touch him tells Karana that Rontu had, indeed, been her dog, left on the island after that fateful visit so many years before. This interlude helps to maintain Karana's link with the human world, but it perhaps only deepens her loneliness when the Aleuts leave.

As time passes, Karana tames two birds and gives them names, and eventually finds a friend in an injured sea otter (originally named Mon-a-nee—"Little Boy with Large Eyes"—but changed to Won-a-nee—"Little Girl with Large Eyes"—when she shows up with baby otters). Later she adds an injured seagull to her menagerie, and, in time, she discovers that her developing relationships with animals will make it virtually impossible for her to kill any animals (save for some selected shell-fish for food). Karana realizes how strange her attitude would seem to her own people: "Ulape would have laughed at me, and others would have laughed, too—my father most of all. Yet this is the way I felt about the animals who had become my friends and those who were not, but in time could be" (Island, 156). Karana's long life of solitude on the island has deepened her perspective and her sensitivity, and she sees that "animals and birds are like people, too, though they do not talk the same or do the same things. Without them the earth would be an unhappy place" (Island, 156). This is the message that O'Dell initially set out to deliver in the book, and for the first time in a major children's story we find the environmentalists' credo—that all life is sacred, that we share this earth together with all living things, and that we have an obligation to preserve the earth intact for succeeding generations.

Karana's final years on the island are compressed into a few chapters, the most touching passage being that relating the death of Rontu. The noble animal's quiet death of old age is movingly described in the simple, direct language that characterizes Karana so well:

Slowly he walked to where I was standing and fell at my feet. I put my hand on his chest. I could feel his heart beating, but it beat only twice, very slowly, loud and hollow like the waves on the beach, and then no more…. I buried him on the headland. I dug a hole in the crevice of the rock, digging for two days from dawn until the going down of the sun, and put him there with some sand flowers and a stick he liked to chase when I threw it, and covered him with pebbles of many colors that I gathered on the shore.
     (Island, 160)

The book closes swiftly after this, although Karana spends several more years on the island. She befriends a dog who is almost certainly one of Rontu's offspring and survives an earthquake. Finally, a ship with white men aboard arrives to take her away from the island.

O'Dell is not often a poetic writer, but in these closing lines he achieves something quite beautiful:

The last thing I saw of it was the high headland. I thought of Rontu lying there beneath the stones of many colors, and of Won-a-nee, wherever she was, and the little red fox that would scratch in vain at my fence, and my canoe hidden in the cave, and of all the happy days.

Dolphins rose out of the sea and swam before the ship. They swam for many leagues in the morning through the bright water, weaving their foamy patterns. The little birds were chirping in their cage and Rontu-Aru sat beside me.
     (Island, 181)


In writing Island of the Blue Dolphins, O'Dell was presented with the challenge of how to maintain the reader's interest when, for much of the story, only a single human being occupies the stage. That he succeeds may be attributed to the well-paced plot and to the development of Karana as a character.

As has been noted, O'Dell had come to prefer the first-person narrator, and in Island of the Blue Dolphins we are brought into Karana's world completely through that technique. The book reads in part like a journal, although Karana would have been incapable of keeping a written record. So long as we do not probe too far into the circumstances of her narration and how she came to be telling us this story, we can enjoy the confidence into which we have been taken by a very sensitive young woman.

O'Dell handles the novel's pacing and avoids the pitfall of tediousness through a variety of techniques. Jon Stott has pointed out that O'Dell actually delays the central character's isolation until the end of chapter 8, after Ramo has been killed.3 This allows O'Dell to establish Karana's social milieu, to define the roots of her character, and to introduce her antagonists, the Aleuts, whom she encounters later on the island. Then O'Dell alternates accounts of Karana's daily activities, including "how-to" chapters, with episodes of extraordinary events—wrestling with the devilfish, attempting the dangerous journey to the mainland, forming a friendship with Tutok. Thus, he avoids a slackening of the pace, and the reader's interest is not allowed to wane. As Stott writes,

O'Dell invests the lonely, often monotonous life of a young girl with significance. He presents details with graphic realism, arranges a series of symbolic events, and, from within the mind of his principal character, tells of the courage and love she uses to survive an inner loneliness which is greater than the outer dreariness of her life and of the maturing process in which hatred and fear have been replaced by love and sociality.
     (Stott, 446)


In R. M. Ballantyne's The Coral Island (1858), the story of three English boys shipwrecked on an island in the South Seas, the boys are rescued after many harrowing adventures, and it is only then, when they are leaving for England, that they discover how deeply they have been touched by their experience:

That night, as we sat on the taffrail gazing out upon the wide sea and up into the starry firmament, a thrill of joy, strangely mixed with sadness, passed through our hearts; for we were at length "homeward bound," and were gradually leaving far behind us the beautiful, bright green coral islands of the Pacific Ocean.4

It is not surprising that these lines are echoed in the closing passage of Island of the Blue Dolphins quoted above. Both stories bear resemblance to that grandparent of all modern survival tales, Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719).

If Robinson Crusoe is not the first desert island survival story, it is certainly the most influential, as suggested by the epithet Robinsonnade, which has long been used to designate such works. The development of the Robinsonnade as a literary form within a society suggests that that society has attained a certain level of civilization. As Ian Watt points out, "the main processes by which man secures food, clothing, and shelter are only likely to become interesting when they have become alien to his common, everyday experience. To enjoy the description of the elementary productive processes reveals a sophisticated taste."5 Only after division of labor had eliminated the necessity for complete self-reliance, was self-reliance itself to become a strange and appealing concept. Robinson Crusoe, a work intended for adults, was almost immediately popular with children, its appeal undoubtedly attributable to its exotic setting, its adventure, and its absence of any governing authority. In the traditional Robinsonnade, Stuart Hannabuss notes, "Characters always stay in control of their destiny, despite the fact that being castaway is supremely the dilemma where survival is most at risk…. The realism which could make this experience so much more disturbing for the reader was generally kept out."6 In these earlier works, little attempt at psychological realism is found—neither the depression nor the introspection that we might expect from long-isolated individuals. However, it is a trait of more recent survival stories—and especially of Island of the Blue Dolphins —that the main character is taken to the brink of desperation, to the "very edge of disaster" (Hannabuss, 78). As readers, we become engaged in the protagonist's method of coping both physically and psychologically. In O'Dell we see this in Karana's soul-searching as she is forced to befriend an archenemy, Rontu, and later Tutok; and in her thwarted, futile effort to sail alone to the mainland.

The typical children's survival story depicts young people shifting for themselves without the help or guidance of their parents or any other adults. One notable exception is Johann David Wyss's Swiss Family Robinson (1812-1813). In this much-emulated stepchild of Robinson Crusoe, an entire family is stranded—father, mother, and two sons. Its appeal is in the domestic unit, and it reads as a sort of combination family novel/adventure story. It also facilitates the moral education of youth, an important element in much of Victorian children's literature. But the more common trend in the Robinsonnade for young readers is for the youthful protagonist to find him- or herself stranded in a wilderness without the advantage of adult wisdom and experience. Naturally, the reason for eliminating adults in a young reader's Robinsonnade is much the same as in any child's story. For young people to be the true central figures, they must not be seen to compete with adults for authority. They must be able to experience a degree of freedom wherein they are allowed choices. To put it simply, they must be allowed to grow up. Consequently, in most bildungsromans, which Robinsonnades generally are, we see the youthful protagonists making it on their own. The Victorians were drawn to the Robinsonnade because it could satisfy their curiosity about distant lands (many of which they owned), and the desert island setting could serve as a classroom in which the characters (and the readers) received instruction, not in wilderness survival techniques, but in human values. Usually, for the Victorians, those values came from appropriate doses of religion. Ballantyne's The Coral Island is the quintessential Victorian Robinsonnade, with young boys compelled to fend for themselves on a desert island through pirate attacks and cannibal threats, hurricanes and volcanic explosions, and, of course, the requisite shark encounter. Although the three heroes of that story do not build a colonial civilization as does Crusoe, neither do they attempt to understand the new land that proves to be their salvation. They approach their experience with the same smug self-confidence as does Crusoe, assured of their superiority over the natives as well as the animal life and persuaded that they have more to offer the strange environment than it does them.

Ballantyne's work inspired numerous similar tales, most notably R. L. Stevenson's Treasure Island (1883) and William Golding's Lord of the Flies (1954). Golding's profoundly moving work even borrows the names of Ballantyne's principal characters. But a darker philosophy informs Golding's book, which ends in tragedy and the failure of the island society. After Golding, only an unabashed sentimentalist or a satirist could write an idyllic Robinsonnade in which the protagonist presumes to govern the environment, to bend circumstances to his or her will. Lord of the Flies may not be for children, but Golding's vision has not been lost on modern children's writers. Even if most children's Robinsonnades of the late twentieth century have happy endings, they are not afraid to confront some of the darker issues that would logically face their protagonists—for one, the psychological torments of depression brought about by loneliness and fear.

It is O'Dell's great contribution to this subgenre that he created a protagonist who would learn the virtue of peaceful coexistence, who would come to respect the natural world and to understand the role of human beings in the complex fabric of life. O'Dell, in his passion about the needless slaughter of animals, was one of the first children's authors to give us the survival story with an environmental message. His successors recognized the inevitable direction of the survival story, as evidenced by works such as Theodore Taylor's The Cay (1969), Jean Craighead George's Julie of the Wolves (1972), and Gary Paulsen's Dogsong (1985). These efforts have resulted in more credible novels and, at the same time, novels with moral messages as powerful as in any work from the impassioned pens of the Victorians.


In Island of the Blue Dolphins, O'Dell hit upon a formula long popular with young readers: a youth is left to survive alone on a deserted isle (or some other suitably isolated place) with only animals for company. This scenario offers the opportunity both for excitement as the protagonist faces the physical hardships of an unyielding environment and for introspection as he or she faces the psychological challenges of isolation from other human beings. It also presents one of the great enticements of childhood, that of "a glorious freedom away from the constraints of civilized life" (Hannabuss, 71). Moreover, for O'Dell the form brings the advantage so prized by the Victorians—it gives "wide flexibility to authors, who [can] excite, educate, and admonish through its pages, and who [can] reflect current interests and val- ues there too" (Hannabuss, 81). O'Dell's instruction is not in wilderness survival techniques, as interesting as they are, but rather in human values, for here, on the edge of civilization, we discover what really matters in life. Here we can put our own existence into the proper perspective with that of the rest of nature. O'Dell arrives at a very different set of values than did his Victorian precursors, values that glorify not the achievements of humankind but the wonders of the wide and varied world around us.

Charles Dickens wrote of Robinson Crusoe that it was the "only instance of a universally popular book that could make no one laugh and no one cry."7 It is difficult to say how many readers of Island of the Blue Dolphins are moved to tears—but if readers do not weep, it is only because they have gained strength from Karana's stoicism, her inner strength that will not allow her to fall into sentimentalism. In contrast to Defoe's book, O'Dell's survival tale exudes a poignancy and dignity that the author was never to equal again. Austin Olney, O'Dell's longtime friend and his first editor at Houghton Mifflin, has remarked that Island of the Blue Dolphins seemed to fly off Scott O'Dell's pen as if guided by the muses—it was a "gift of the Gods."8 Few would disagree with that assessment. O'Dell would write more exciting books and more complex stories but none more beautiful or more deeply moving.


1. Quoted in Peter Roop, "Profile: Scott O'Dell," Language Arts 61 (November 1984): 751; hereafter cited in text.

2. Scott O'Dell, Island of the Blue Dolphins (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960), 49; hereafter cited in text as Island.

3. Jon Stott, "Narrative Technique and Meaning in Island of the Blue Dolphins," Elementary English 52 (April 1975): 442-43; hereafter cited in text.

4. R. M. Ballantyne, The Coral Island (1858; reprint, New York: Penguin, 1990), 338-39.

5. Ian Watt, "Robinson Crusoe as Myth," Eighteenth-Century English Literature: Modern Essays in Criticism, ed. James L. Clifford (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959), 163.

6. Stuart Hannabuss, "Islands as Metaphors," Universities Quarterly 38 (Winter 1983-1984): 78; hereafter cited in text.

7. Quoted in John Forster, Life of Charles Dickens, rev. J. W. T. Ley (London: 1928), 611.

8. Austin Olney, telephone interview with author, 3 December 1997.


John T. Gillespie (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Gillespie, John T. "The King's Fifth." In More Juniorplots: A Book Talk Manual for Teachers and Librarians, pp. 92-5. New York, N.Y.: R. R. Bowker Company, 1977.

[In the following essay, Gillespie offers an examination of The King's Fifth, hailing its recreation of a historical period rarely seen in children's literature.]

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.


Books for Children 1967-1968 (review date 1968)

SOURCE: Review of The Black Pearl, by Scott O'Dell, illustrations by Milton Johnson. In Books for Children 1967-1968, p. 107. Chicago, Ill.: American Library Association, 1968.

Until he is sixteen Ramón Salazar, son of a pearl dealer of La Paz in Baja California, has never believed in the Manta Diablo, a sea monster larger than the largest ship in the harbor. Then, diving for pearls one day in the lagoon outside the manta's cave [in The Black Pearl ], he brings up an enormous black pearl belonging to El Diablo, possession of which brings enemies, disaster, and changes in Ramón's life. The legendlike, first-person story of Ramón's finding of the pearl and the subsequent events which climax in a life-and-death struggle with the Manta Diablo is a hauntingly memorable one told in an effectively spare and dramatic style. Grades 6-9.

Paul Ettenson (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Ettenson, Paul. "The Black Pearl." In Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Volume 1, edited by Kirk H. Beetz and Suzanne Niemeyer, pp. 142-47. Washington, D.C.: Beacham Publishing, 1989.

[In the following essay, Ettenson examines the dual influences of religion and superstition in The Black Pearl.]


Scott O'Dell was born in Los Angeles, California, on May 23, 1903. His father worked on the railroad, and the family moved often throughout California. O'Dell attended Occidental College, the University of Wisconsin, and Stanford University, but never found college rewarding. In 1925 he took a job as a cameraman, working on the original motion picture version of Ben-Hur, and took courses at the University of Rome. He joined the U.S. Air Force during World War II and later became a book editor for a Los Angeles newspaper.

From 1934 on. O'Dell pursued his love of writing, authoring several adult novels as well as books on art, children, and California history. Beginning in 1960 with Island of the Blue Dolphins, O'Dell used his historical knowledge to create young adult fiction. During his prolific career he won several awards, including the Newbery Medal for Island of the Blue Dolphins and the 1962 Hans Christian Andersen Award, the world's most distinguished prize for writers of young adult literature. Two of his books were adapted to film: Island of the Blue Dolphins and The Black Pearl. O'Dell died on October 15, 1989, in Mount Kisco, New York.


O'Dell creates an aura of mystery and the supernatural in The Black Pearl, transplanting familiar themes into a foreign environment. Set in coastal Mexico, the book depicts a realm dominated by religion and superstition, hope and desperation. O'Dell provides a vivid entrance into this region and an introduction to its folklore. The novel emphasizes the universality of experience, demonstrating that young people everywhere share the same dreams and flaws of character, and face the same struggles on the path to maturity.


The events in this novel occur off the waters of Baja California, a lengthy Mexican peninsula that runs south from California into the Pacific Ocean. The waters teem with exotic and dangerous creatures. The citizens of La Paz, a village community of fishermen and pearlers, are always at the mercy of the climate and its powerful storms. No specific time period is identified in this story, for the pearlers have practiced their trade for centuries, with few changes in their way of life.


O'Dell's tale of a young boy's abrupt passage into adulthood follows a familiar and elemental pattern: a youth defies his elders and embarks on a dangerous quest that climaxes in an encounter with a supernatural being. The protagonist eventually gains a material prize as well as a vital understanding of life's hardships, and comes to realize that evil wears many faces.

In drawing upon this timeless theme of passage into adulthood. The Black Pearl stresses ideas that apply to young people of any era or culture: that gaining maturity is necessarily an ordeal; that growing up in- volves conflict with parents; and, most important, that human beings are part of a vast world of natural forces, few of which they understand.

O'Dell's protagonist, Ramon Salazar, is a boy whose impatience with childhood leads him into trouble and, at the same time, speeds his maturation. Certainly, Ramon is childish in his rash campaign to outdo the boastful Sevillano (Gaspar Ruiz) and in his disregard for the warnings given him by the old man Soto Luzon, yet his brashness eventually contributes to his wisdom about people, God, and nature. He dives into a cave that Luzon warns is guarded by the Manta Diablo ("devil manta"), and there he finds the great black pearl, or the Pearl of Heaven.

The spiritual world of The Black Pearl is as real as the simple fishing village of La Paz. O'Dell focuses on a conflict rarely touched upon in young adult literature: the difficulty in distinguishing religion from superstition. Christianity, as represented by the Madonna to whom the Pearl of Heaven is given, and the dark forces, as represented by the Manta Diablo play a role in the characters' fates. Yet O'Dell suggests that human nature is ultimately responsible for the course of events; emotions such as greed and pride shape people's attitudes about religion and the supernatural, and these attitudes in turn determine the outcome of the novel.

O'Dell implies that a delicate balance must be struck between paying due respect to supernatural forces and religious beliefs, and taking responsibility for one's own fate. Ramon's father, Blas Salazar, places blind trust in the church to the extent that he is more superstitious than he is religious. He presumes that his donation of the great pearl to the church will assure his fleet of the Madonna's protection, and thus abandons his own responsibility to look after the fleet. As a result, he and thirty of his men are killed in a storm they could easily have escaped. On the other hand, the Sevillano regards the world as an arena for the struggle between humanity and nature, and fails to recognize the power of the supernatural. His bragging and false pride reveal an unrealistic view of his own abilities. He chides Ramon, expressing surprise that an educated boy would believe in the supernatural, but eventually perishes while trying to slay the monster of the deep whose powers he has denied. Through his own quest, Ramon learns to respect these forces and to take responsibility for his own actions.

O'Dell stresses that there are many kinds of responsibility. Ramon initially believes that becoming a partner in his father's business will automatically make him a "grown up." But O'Dell shows that genuine maturity is earned through confronting responsibility. It is not "achievement" that marks passage into adulthood; it is a change in values. Ramon finds that responsibility involves commitment; once acted upon, decisions are difficult to reverse. Having stolen the pearl, he cannot simply return it to the sea, because greedy humans such as the Sevillano will attempt to intervene.

The old pearler, Soto Luzon, brings to mind the wise old man of legend who invariably repeats the wisdom of ancient times to unheeding young people fated to learn only through bitter experience. When Luzon, whose name means "light," tells Ramon that the Manta Diablo assumes different forms, he is suggesting that evil and disaster assume different shapes. By the end of the novel, Ramon has come to understand life's complexities, and he says a prayer not for himself but for the Sevillano, the Manta Diablo, and the human race in general.


The Black Pearl, like many of O'Dell's works, incorporates elements of legend, myth, and history. Structured around the ancient literary pattern of the quest, the book features a youth who sets out to attain glory but finds the path to success littered with physical trials and moral dilemmas. Like most heroes of legend, Ramon faces enemies both human and supernatural, finding evil in the Sevillano's greed as well as in the Manta Diablo's destructiveness. The Manta Diablo recalls such legendary supernatural creatures as the medieval dragon; able to communicate with other animals and change its shape at will, its many attributes and dread reputation have been confirmed and bolstered by the spoken fears of people. The Sevillano, like Sinbad and other legendary warriors, is boastful and uncommonly brave. His tattoos speak of confrontations with such powerful natural creatures as the octopus. His flaws are, of course, his pride and his scornful attitude toward forces greater than himself. Still another figure typical of classical legend is Soto Luzon, who, like the seer of Greek myth and the Ancient Mariner of Samuel Coleridge's nineteenth-century poem, warns young Ramon about the cost of "stealing" the great pearl from the Manta Diablo.

The Black Pearl also reflects the work of nineteenth-century American writer Herman Melville. The mythic style and themes of O'Dell's work resemble those of Melville's Moby-Dick, in which Captain Ahab, like the Sevillano, fails to respect powerful forces and dies while trying to kill a monster of the sea. Twentieth-century American author John Steinbeck based his novel The Pearl on the same legend from which O'Dell derived his story, but the two works demonstrate very different interpretations of the same source.

Ramon's first-person narration gives The Black Pearl a sense of immediacy. O'Dell's repeated references to dramatic nature imagery develop the novel's emotional climate. Red skies over the sea signal either peace or violence; the Pearl of Heaven is black, foreshadowing the grave consequences of Ramon's theft. Ramon's description of the approaching chubasco, the violent windstorm that dooms his father and the fleet, suggests that this will be a storm of death: "The candles moved back and forth and then were snuffed out by an unseen hand. I tried to relight the candles but failed, for through the barred window the air was being sucked from the room in a great sigh." These dramatic images, combined with supernatural elements, create a constant air of suspense.


The Black Pearl contains few elements that are likely to prove controversial. O'Dell shows how Catholicism and legend influence the lives of his characters, but he does not encourage readers to embrace a particular faith. Rather, he advocates that people respect religion. The novel's protagonist acknowledges that there are forces in the universe more powerful than any one individual, but he also learns that the individual has the ability and obligation to act responsibly.


Books for Children 1968-1969 (review date 1970)

SOURCE: Review of The Dark Canoe, by Scott O'Dell, illustrations by Milton Johnson. In Books for Children 1968-1969, p. 101. Chicago, Ill.: American Library Association, 1970.

Mood and character rather than action dominate [The Dark Canoe, ] a story narrated by sixteen-year-old Nathan Clegg, cabin boy aboard his older brother's ship during an intensive search for the wreck of a whaling vessel off the coast of California. In the course of events, Nathan learns some unhappy truths about his adored elder brother Jeremy, who had drowned under mysterious circumstances, and comes to understand and appreciate his feared and hated oldest brother Caleb, an eccentric sea captain wrongfully accused of negligence in the loss of the wrecked whaler. While numerous allusions to Melville's Moby Dick add dramatic overtones, they seem at times inept and add confusion to an otherwise finely written, atmospheric sea yarn. Grades 7-9.


Thomas A. Drazdowski (review date September 1989)

SOURCE: Drazdowski, Thomas A. Review of Sing Down the Moon, by Scott O'Dell. English Journal 78, no. 5 (September 1989): 90.

Sing Down the Moon by Scott O'Dell is about Bright Morning, a young Navaho girl kidnapped by Spanish slavers. Set in the 1860s, this historical novel is written in the first person: the fourteen-year-old heroine speaks simply but poetically about the land and the Indian way of life, a life shattered when she is captured by Spaniards to be sold to a family in town "to cook for them and wash their floors."

Even after a dramatic escape and the rescue from her pursuers by her future husband Tall Boy, life does not return to normal. The soldiers, or "Long Blades," invade their village in retaliation for Indian raids. While the Indians watch in anguish from their hiding place in the mountains, the soldiers burn their village and ravage the land and its crops, destroying their future as well. Faced with starvation, the Indians surrender and join the whole nation of Navahos who are on the march to captivity, a three-hundred-mile journey referred to in history as "The Long Walk." And what is waiting for them there is something readers won't forget.

Terry Heller (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Heller, Terry. "Sing Down the Moon." In Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Volume 3, edited by Kirk H. Beetz and Suzanne Niemeyer, pp. 1224-30. Washington, D.C.: Beacham Publishing, 1990.

[In the following essay, Heller characterizes Sing Down the Moon as a novel of loyalty and peaceful intentions.]


Scott O'Dell was born on May 23, 1903, in Los Angeles, California. Although he traveled widely, he made his home in southern California, the region in which many of his books are set. O'Dell attended Occidental College, the University of Wisconsin, Stanford University, and the University of Rome but never completed a degree. Believing that he did not need an academic degree to become a successful writer, he attended these institutions to study the subjects that interested him most: history, philosophy, psychology, and literature. In addition to being a prolific novelist, O'Dell worked briefly as a movie cameraman, served in the Air Force, and pursued journalism. He married Jane Rattenbury in 1948.

After publishing several adult novels, O'Dell began a career as an author of novels for young readers with Island of the Blue Dolphins. He went on to write more than twenty novels for young adults, most of which received awards and achieved popularity. One of the best of these is Sing Down the Moon, a Newbery Honor Book. O'Dell's other awards include the 1961 Newbery Medal for Island of the Blue Dolphins, a 1968 Newbery Honor Book citation for The Black Pearl, and the 1972 Hans Christian Andersen Award for lifetime contribution to children's literature. Two of his novels—Island of the Blue Dolphins and The Black Pearl —were adapted to feature-length films. O'Dell died on October 15, 1989, in Mount Kisco, New York.


O'Dell called Sing Down the Moon an adventure about loyalty. Bright Morning, a young Navaho woman, remains loyal to her family, her homeland, and her people. The book opens with Bright Morning remembering the first time she took her family's sheep onto the mesa at Canyon de Chelly to begin the spring grazing. When a late spring blizzard strikes, she secures the sheep in a grove of trees but becomes frightened and abandons the flock. Although the sheep survive, Bright Morning feels that by leaving, she has betrayed both them and her family. Looking back on the incident a year later and recalling her family's disapproval, Bright Morning understands the importance of loyalty. Her experiences throughout the novel—being captured as a slave, being forced to participate in the Navaho "long walk" into exile from Canyon de Chelly, marrying the recently crippled Tall Boy, and returning with her new husband to the canyon—test and strengthen her loyalty to the people and places that are part of her identity and her integrity.


Sing Down the Moon takes place mainly in Arizona and New Mexico between 1863 and 1865. The story begins and ends in Canyon de Chelly, now a national monument. O'Dell is a careful historical novelist. In addition to giving his readers the pleasure of adventures set in another time and place, he offers a glimpse into the life and culture of Navahos in the nineteenth-century Southwest. He creates a vivid sketch of traditional Navaho life, basing his story of "the long march" on an actual historical event. In 1863 the U.S. government removed all the Navahos from the Four Corners region of the Southwest (where the borders of Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico all meet) to Fort Sumner, southeast of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Colonel Kit Carson led U.S. Cavalry troops in destroying Navaho villages and crops and killing those who resisted the three-hundred-mile walk. About ten thousand Navahos were removed; about eighty-five hundred reached Fort Sumner alive. Another fifteen hundred died during two years of exile. Sing Down the Moon captures the horror of this long march from a young Navaho woman's point of view.


In his portrayal of Bright Morning, the novel's protagonist and narrator, O'Dell lives up to his reputation for sensitive depictions of strong female characters. Fifteen years old when the novel opens, Bright Morning is compassionate, nurturing, and physically and mentally tough. She feels strong ties to her people, to her homeland, and to nature. When Bright Morning is exiled twice—first Spanish slave traders capture her and her friend Running Bird, and then she is forced on the long march to Fort Sumner— her greatest regret is being separated from her home.

Bright Morning hopes from the novel's outset to marry Tall Boy, a courageous but arrogant young warrior. Tall Boy's inordinate pride is tempered only after he cripples his right arm in a fight while helping Bright Morning escape from slavery. His disability means that Tall Boy must relinquish his position as leader of the warriors and assume the lowly status of a woman in the tribe. Bright Morning marries the devastated Tall Boy anyway, because she values his capacity for loyalty and love more than she did his prowess at hunting and fighting. In this regard, she rejects traditional Navaho ideals, which place a high value on a man's abilities as a hunter and a warrior, and teach women to be submissive. Bright Morning gradually instills a new sense of pride in Tall Boy as she teaches him that the human spirit can be imprisoned by neither a broken body nor other people.

The other characters in the novel—such as Bright Morning's sister, Lapana; her parents; and her friends Running Bird and White Deer—function primarily to further the plot. When Bright Morning is taken into slavery, though, she meets two contrasting characters whose differences serve to underscore the novel's message about the value of freedom. Rosita is from Navaho country, and Nehana is a Zuni; both are slaves in the same household as Bright Morning. Initially, Rosita appears to be a potential friend, but Bright Morning soon realizes that Rosita enjoys being a slave. Rosita comes from a poor family and has become enamored with the comforts of "civilization." Nehana, on the other hand, seems unfriendly at first, but she masterminds an escape for herself, Bright Morning, and Running Bird. Nehana refuses to sacrifice her freedom at any cost and emerges a noble figure; Rosita's submission to slavery, along with her willingness to forsake her cultural heritage, has destroyed her personal integrity.

The importance of remaining loyal to one's cultural heritage constitutes the novel's major theme. O'Dell shows that when the Navaho are forced to abandon their traditional ways during the long march and their subsequent imprisonment, they wither both physically and spiritually. The high value that Bright Morning places on loyalty is partially revealed through her relationship with her black dog, who, against all odds, manages to find Bright Morning whenever they are separated. O'Dell contrasts the dog's loyalty with the disregard for bonds between humans and animals displayed by the Jicarilla Apache woman who eats dog stew. The Navaho, says Bright Morning, "never eat stew made of dog meat." But once the spirits of the starving Navaho are broken during the long march, many of them begin to eat their dogs, and Bright Morning is forced to become fiercely protective of her black dog. Her determination to remain true to her culture culminates when she and Tall Boy return to their homeland with their infant son even though their village has been burned to the ground.

In the novel's final scene in the Canyon de Chelly, O'Dell makes his strongest statement about the preferability of peace over war, a theme that he weaves throughout the novel. The family has made a home in a hidden cave and Tall Boy, the former warrior, has fashioned a toy lance for his son and made up a song about using the lance to kill soldiers. Bright Morning takes the lance from her son and breaks it, and the child laughs and touches a lamb, a symbol of peace.


Bright Morning tells her story in a straightforward first-person account. O'Dell uses the pattern of exile and return to express his theme of the connections between loyalty and identity, and to criticize cultures that damage these connections by tearing people away from one another and from their homes. When Bright Morning is thrust into white culture, she often reflects on how it differs from her own culture, a device that allows O'Dell to unobtrusively insert many revealing details about Navaho life. The wistful but dignified tone of Bright Morning's narrative as she recalls her past life makes these details vivid. O'Dell's inclusion of such details in a fast-paced adventure story lends richness and depth to the novel and brings Bright Morning's character to life.

Bright Morning's adventures generate a great deal of suspense. When great misfortune is about to befall a character, O'Dell often hints at the forthcoming event and then shifts to an idyllic description of nature just before disaster strikes. For instance, before the slavers abduct Bright Morning and Running Bird, Bright Morning lapses into a revery about the tranquil spring day: "Clouds drifted in from the north, but they were spring clouds, white as lamb's wool. In the stream that wandered across the mesa speckled trout were leaping." Then Bright Morning's dog barks, and minutes later the girls are bound and gagged. Similarly, just as Bright Morning and Running Bird forget about the threat posed by soldiers camped near their village and try to coax a squirrel down from a piñon tree, Bright Morning notices a puff of smoke and realizes that the soldiers are burning the village. In addition to creating suspense, this technique of juxtaposing a tranquil scene with a violent event underscores the impact of the violence.


O'Dell said that he was concerned with the way in which children grow up in American society and with the failures of different cultures to understand and appreciate one another. These concerns are apparent in Sing Down the Moon.

O'Dell shows Bright Morning growing from the girl who abandoned her sheep into the mature woman who can break the lance her husband makes for their son. Her rejection of a tradition of warfare promises a new cultural direction for her people. A feminist theme is implicit both in O'Dell's choice to make a young woman his narrator and main character, and in the direction the story takes. In traditional Navaho society, masculine interests dominate, and these interests help to provoke "the long march." Despite warnings from the U.S. government that Navaho raids against the Utes will bring reprisals, the Navaho are unable to give up warfare as a means of gaining extra food, territorial advantage, and personal honor. Though Bright Morning and other women understand how foolish such behavior is and emphasize the importance of protecting their precious, fertile canyon, the men will not listen. Rather, they insist upon the traditional way, in which women submit and avoid contradicting husbands and fathers. While women have a voice in tribal affairs, they lack the power to change the men's foolish behavior. Tall Boy's loss of the use of his arm and the couple's sufferings in exile lead to Bright Morning's assertion of a new ideal that promises a beneficial change for her people.

In Sing Down the Moon, much suffering results from the failures of cultures to understand and appreciate one another. The Navaho are unable to give up their long rivalry with the Utes even though they have all they need. The Spanish-American civilization of New Mexico tears young women away from "savage" tribes to gain slaves and servants. The U.S. soldiers who move the Navaho think of them as primitives that need and desire autocratic control. In each case, cruelty arises from ignorance and a lack of effort to overcome the ignorance. To use people or force them to conform always seems the easier choice, unless it is seen from the point of view of the victims. By telling the story from Bright Morning's point of view, O'Dell insures that his readers will see how unnecessary and wrong are such brutalities as the Navaho long march and the exile at Fort Sumner.


Barbara H. Baskin and Karen H. Harris (review date 1984)

SOURCE: Baskin, Barbara H., and Karen H. Harris. Review of The Captive, by Scott O'Dell. In More Notes from a Different Drummer: A Guide to Juvenile Fiction Portraying the Handicapped, pp. 338-39. New York, N.Y.: R. R. Bowker, 1984.

Against his will, Julián Escobar is ordered to prepare himself to accompany his protector, Don Luis, to the New World [in The Captive ]. The young seminarian suspects he has been selected because the local priest is vehemently against slavery, and as a mere student, the youth is expected to be less troublesome. Under the direction of Captain Roa, the caravel sails west with the expectation that it will return to Seville with its hold crammed with gold. During the course of the voyage, it becomes increasingly apparent that the youth's role is to provide a respectable facade for his mentor's avarice: under the guise of establishing Christianity, Don Luis intends to plunder the islands and enslave the natives. He is encouraged in his schemes by Guzmán, an evil, unscrupulous miner who contracts with the local chief of a small island to use the Indians as laborers to locate and extract the precious ore. The natives are first ruthlessly exploited and, in the end, betrayed and enslaved. After the gold is loaded on board along with some captured Indians, the ship sets sail but founders during a violent storm. Julián, swept overboard, swims to an apparently abandoned island nearby.

He is discovered by an adolescent Mayan girl, who assists him to survive and teaches him her language. Both try to persuade the other of the correctness of their respective religious beliefs, but without success. One day, Guillermo Cantú arrives on the island and reveals to Julián that he was formerly a law student in Spain. He recounts that out of 21 passengers lost in a shipwreck, all were sacrificed to the gods except himself "for dwarfs are venerated here among the Maya, unlike Seville, where they're the butt of many a scurrilous joke." Cantú devises an ambitious scheme, proposing that Julián pose as Kukulcán, the former lord of the island who promised to return one day and govern his people. Similarities between the youth's appearance and that of the legendary god are striking, and Cantú pragmatically points out that Julián should either prepare himself to participate in the charade or ready himself for the inevitable ceremony of sacrifice, in which he would surely be the victim. Seeing no real choice, Julián agrees to the scheme, and the two set about stage-managing the ex-seminarian's arrival so that it will have the most convincing and dramatic impact on the populace. His masquerade persuades two out of the three priests that he is Kukulcán, and he is accompanied to the godhouse for the welcoming ceremony. In horror, he watches the sacrificial rites, aghast at the realization that 15 people have been killed to honor him. Close by his side is his conspirator, ready to be the youth's guide and share in the riches he is convinced will be forthcoming.

* * *

Analysis: Cantú is an intelligent, cynical pragmatist, motivated, as were so many of his contemporaries, by an obsessive lust for gold. Eschewing a central role, he plans to control events from behind the scenes, exploiting the opportunities fortune throws his way: the veneration accorded him because of his stature, the appearance of a naive young man who can be made to seem the embodiment of a prophecy, and access to untold wealth for those clever and unscrupulous enough to seize it. This first installment of a projected series, City of the Seven Serpents, is an unusual and compelling narrative. The time and place are vividly evoked, and the introduction of an exotic and little-known culture is masterfully handled.

John Warren Stewig (essay date fall 1989)

SOURCE: Stewig, John Warren. "A Literary and Linguistic Analysis of Scott O'Dell's The Captive." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 14, no. 3 (fall 1989): 135-38.

[In the following essay, Stewig constructs a linguistic analysis of The Captive, outlining aspects of O'Dell's literary strengths.]

Why would children choose to read Scott O'Dell's The Captive ? Why might teachers or librarians choose to read it to children? The answers to these questions illustrate the contention widely made that children and teachers read for different reasons. Children will read this book to follow Julian Escobar as he sails, fights, resists authority, is tempted, and succumbs. The action will be the main attraction for children. While approving this motivation, teachers might choose this book for its sophisticated language and its deft use of literary elements. Children's literature experts point out that an important reason adults read to children is to increase their ability with language. Donna Norton asserts that literature provides "both a model for language and a stimulation for oral and written activities" (10). Huck supports this assertion with studies which "show the effect of planned exposure to literature on improving language facility in children" (11). There is, beyond the compelling adventure in O'Dell's book, far deeper art demonstrating the author's impressive mastery of literary elements, and his sophisticated use of language. By consciously choosing such books as this one to read aloud, teachers work toward accomplishing the important instructional goals described by Norton and Huck.

Perhaps the most ephemeral of literary elements is style. Bernice Cullinan defines it as "The order of words, the sound of words, and the meanings of words, artfully shaped by an author (to) make life radiate from literature" (497). One important component of style is subtlety of language, the accomplishment of the writer's purpose without intrusive statements. Clearly one of O'Dell's strengths is accomplishing his literary purposes with finesse. He deftly foreshadows events, defines in context, creates imagery, repeats for emphasis, alters syntax length, describes setting and characters, describes movement, shows change in character, and evokes the nature of society. This paper will examine each of these in turn, and close by considering briefly what use teachers might make of such information in working with children.

One mark of a skilled writer in any genre is the ability to weave in details so they aren't noticed consciously, yet are available when needed later. O'Dell does this exceedingly well. For example, the first mention of Bravo, the black stallion, is early in the book and the incident is quickly past. Yet this is carefully set up so that some fifty pages later, after the shipwreck, the reader is already familiar with the horse. What seemed incidental earlier is now seen as foundational. This time Bravo will be instrumental in the action, since he is the reason the young Mayan Indian girl, Ceela, is attracted to Julian's camp. Had not O'Dell introduced the horse earlier, a different reason for Ceela and Julian meeting would have been necessary.

The same craft is apparent in respect to the ship's cargo, the gunpowder critical in Julian's assuming his role as the god Kukulcan. When gunpowder is first mentioned, it is casually listed as part of the flotsam washed upon the beach after the shipwreck. Yet some seventy pages later, the gunpowder is absolutely critical in convincing the assembled Mayan multitude that their awaited-for god has come.

In addition to using detail to foreshadow events, a writer of historical fiction must embed significant information without impeding the flow of action. When O'Dell wants to explain why several men were needed to carry the baskets of gold, he deftly explains the metal's weight in two brief sentences. We learn about the Spanish custom of morning chocolate in a brief phrase which gives insight into a culture. We learn the consequences of rats in a ship's hold when Julian comes across a dead Indian's body: "The soles of the man's feet had been gnawed away by rats, which were scurrying here and there" (18).

In addition to such factual information establishing a sense of time and place, details are also essential in establishing character. Sometimes authors tell about character. At other times they show what a character is like. We learn what Don Luis is like through the description of his attitude toward his boat: "Since Don Luis owned the Santa Margarita and had provisioned her and hired the crew … himself, it gave him the right, he was convinced, to run the ship. Small matter that he had never been to sea nor knew more than he had read in books" (13). Because of his skills as an author, O'Dell more often shows readers the nature of characters, than tells them.

A major part of writing style is word choice. Most children, reading to follow the dramatic flow of the plot, will not pause to notice the author's language, but O'Dell's words reflect a highly skilled craft. He introduces unfamiliar words gradually. We learn that Julian plays a gittern on page two. It could be any kind of musical instrument though we learn five pages later that it is a three-stringed instrument. Such subtle weaving of details provides readers with vocabulary they need, without overwhelming them.

Unfamiliar words occur in carefully controlled contexts, so children can extract meaning even though the word is new. An example comes from the scene in which Julian is being guarded in the captain's cabin by another seaman: "Barrios had been holding the lantern. He now set it in gimbels above the table" (70). From that skillfully crafted sentence, readers extract not only that a gimbel is something to hold a lantern, but they also receive information about the size and relative position of the object. The gimbel is something lightweight enough to be affixed to a wall above a table, yet sturdy enough to bear the weight of a lantern.

Sometimes O'Dell uses familiar words imaginatively. To describe his own gullibility, Julian says: "To this moment in my life I'd had the childish habit of swallowing, like a hungry troutlet, most promises that were offered me so long as they were seasoned with flattery" (61). That imaginative fish imagery, which catches our ear today, was natural to Julian's world, where boats were commonplace.

Words are also repeated effectively. When Don Luis asks Julian to bless a group of Indians he refuses, protesting he is not a priest. Don Luis replies: "Then sing. Sing the Slave Regina. Sing in your best voice, in your loudest and softest tones. Sing like a dove; sing like a lion. We will give the savages something to stir their hellish hearts" (37). The insistent repetition of the word sing is designed to weaken Julian's opposition.

O'Dell's syntax is equally imaginative. Instead of a commonplace sentence, "It began to thunder," he writes, "It came on to thunder" (66), a more imaginative construction. There is also pleasant irregularity in some of the syntax. For example, note the interruption of the serial enumeration: "He was followed by 6 musketeers, 6 bowmen, 4 cannoneers, 8 soldiers, all on mules, and 5 horses" (8). First O'Dell sets up a rhythmic repetition, then he breaks it before resuming the rhythm. In places he uses inverted order, as in: "A suitable stick I found on the beach" (113). At other times an introductory clause leads into a sentence of conventional order: "Thinking to rally them, Guzman fired one of the cannons" (56).

O'Dell's syntax also establishes character. The Indians, for example, talk in five- or six-word sentences: "It is not our fight," Ayo said. "The Caribs did not come for us. It is your flesh they hunger for" (57). In contrast, Don Luis's formally-educated speech is much longer. At one point he is justifying his callous mistreatment of the Indians to Julian. He recalls a man Julian had idolized. "But I have never heard you mention the fact that this Las Casas, who is highly regarded by both Their Majesties and by the Church, proposed that Negroes be shipped from Africa to the Indies" (91). That thirty-five word sentence represents the educated Spaniard's speech, providing by length a contrast that reinforces the differences between the conquerors and their victims.

Despite O'Dell's skill, it is in describing language itself that he creates a singular problem of credibility. Julian encounters Ceela, and hears for the first time the Mayan language she speaks. In his typical egocentric way he describes it as an "outlandish sounding tongue." As he begins learning the language, the elapsed time is simply a few weeks. Taking, as this does, only five pages of text, one is incredulous to discover that in this brief time Julian describes himself as beginning to "think in Mayan, not Spanish" (152). That sounds unlikely, even for a Spanish seminarian who has learned three languages before leaving home. It is one of O'Dell's few misjudgments about language.

All authors must devote at least minimal attention to setting. In historical fiction, however, this task is more difficult than in other genres. Not only must the author establish the authenticity of a specific place, but more particularly of a place separated in time. This must be done without overwhelming readers with excessive detail. O'Dell is masterful in describing historical setting, telling of both indoor and out- door spaces. The Indians, mistreated by the Spaniards, have run off into the jungle. After Julian refuses to help recapture the savages, he is detained in the captain's cabin.

Besides a chart table, used for dining, and two chairs bolted tight in the flooring, there was a small sofa, which I had never had the pleasure of using. In the aft bulwark was a large window with thick glass, very old and scratched inside and out. Through it I had a view of the beach, both arms of the bay, and when the caravel turned with the tide, a glimpse of the open sea.

At other times the description is less extensive, but equally evocative. When the recaptured Indians are returned to the clearing, they are herded, chained, beneath decks: "The hold smelled of sadness. The Indians were huddled together, holding each other, sick. I felt sick myself" (92).

In addition to descriptions of interior spaces, the book also includes convincing descriptions of natural, outdoor settings. When cast ashore following the shipwreck, Julian finds everything he needs to survive, except fire. The distant volcano beckons, so he sets out to get fire:

I had climbed only a third of the distance or less … but already the earth felt hot beneath my feet, and on my tongue was the coppery-taste of smoke. Leafless trees and stumps of various sizes that looked like black fangs were scattered over the slope … a wisp of smoke rose from one of the stumps.

This contrasts with more pleasant exterior environments:

Following the steam, I entered a cathedral-like grove. The trees, which were of a variety I'd never seen before, had delicate, transparent leaves the shape of coins, fastened to branches at such an angle that as I passed among them and stirred the air, they seemed to turn full circle on their stems. A heavy odor of many fragrances surrounded me as I moved along—of flowers blooming somewhere out of sight.

In addition to establishing environments, authors must also describe characters. Such descriptions are both physical and psychological; O'Dell excels in both types. Perhaps the most dramatic visual contrast in the book is between Julian and the man who will change his life, Cantu the dwarf. At the beginning, the ship's master, Don Luis, tries to convince Julian to accompany him on the journey. He comments that the Indians "will stand in awe of you, tall and fairhaired as you are" (2). Tall, unlike his fellow Spaniards, Julian is aware of his height and the stature of others.

Thus the appearance of Cantu, also Spanish, is a dramatic shock. As the canoe stops in front of him, Julian sees: "A dwarf who barely reached my belt. A lump with two legs and two long arms" (169). Despite the dwarf's misshapen body, Julian notices his most attractive feature: "His eyes were almond-shaped, a luminous brown, large, beautiful, unexpected in a dwarf, and too beautiful for a man" (170). Later Julian learns to read the sometimes unspoken messages those eyes convey, noticing that Cantu's "enormous eyes clouded over" (176). Those expressive eyes will send other messages. On approaching the city, Julian notices a peremptory tone in Cantu's voice and it becomes apparent there will be future conflicts of will to settle. Julian tells Cantu he must from then on address him not with the familiar term of capitan, but by his proper name. Cantu turns and glances up. "There was an insolent glint in his eyes" (197).

In addition to visual descriptors, O'Dell further defines characters by describing how they move. Cantu seems to Julian to be, despite his stature, "surprisingly graceful as he came toward me" (169). Somewhat later this visual picture changes. A shoal of bright-colored crabs suddenly appears. Startled, Cantu himself "scuttled crabwise across the sand" (187). Later, the dwarf is upset when a disturbance at the shore delays their departure for the city. Once again movement is described. He was "hopping around with his feathers dragging" (186).

Beyond simple descriptions of movement, the author enhances characters by describing the consequences of their actions. Don Luis is malevolence personified. Early in the book Julian wonders at the "arrogance that … Don Luis drank in with his mother's milk" (53). Later we see Don Luis's character most clearly in the scene when the caravel has been destroyed by the storm. Those men still alive are struggling in the enraged sea: "Luis was clinging to a length of timber, which looked to be a piece of the mainmast. It was not big enough to support both men, and as the barber reached out to grasp it, Don Luis pushed his hand away" (103). It is of no consequence to him that in pushing away Don Pacheco's hand he is killing the barber.

Though O'Dell applies his skills of characterization to even minor, two-dimensional characters, he excels in his evocation of Julian. Here he uses language not just to create, but also to show a change in character. The book is most powerfully an in-depth analysis of Julian's transformation from a prototypic Catholic seminarian into a manipulated masquerader. When the book opens, Don Luis is seeking his help, though Julian protests he is "only a seminarian" (1). Fearful of going, Julian recites a catalog of reasons, including that he has no clothes for the expedition, that he is awkward on a horse, and that he easily becomes seasick.

Having capitulated, and thus having been with the expedition for some time, Julian realizes if he is to retain any of his religious ideals, he will have to speak up. Forced labor mining gold has driven the Indians to desert. As the ship's captain, Señor Guzman, implores Julian to convince the scattered Indians to return to work. Julian speaks his mind, in language stronger than he used only a few pages earlier: "I spoke slowly so there would be no doubt about what I was saying. ‘The truth is, sir, I don't wish them back. I wish them to stay where they are. Wherever it is, they are far better off than here’" (163). Mutinous language, indeed, from a hesitant young seminarian, calculated to enrage the fiery ship's captain.

Later, as his concern over the Indian slaves grows, Julian confronts the expedition's leader directly. Don Luis has been telling of the slave-taking exploits of a man Julian admires. Julian replies: "‘I am aware of this,’ I said. ‘Los Casas was wrong. What you are doing is wrong also. Enslaving the Indians. Taking gold that does not belong to you’" (91). Don Luis taunts Julian that he has gladly accepted his share of the gold mined by the captive Indians. To this Julian retorts: "‘Not glad,’ I said. ‘The gold you pressed upon me I threw away. It's now at the bottom of the sea’" (91). Clearly not a comment calculated to endear Julian to his master, it is nonetheless symbolic of his growing independence, something which O'Dell does not tell readers about, but shows them.

Julian fights to master his fears, not only of people but of the inanimate female god he inadvertently discovers while exploring the jungle after the shipwreck. The idol is formidable, described by him as "twice my height" (129), and we already know Julian to be taller than most Spaniards. The stone figure is intimidating in appearance: "The feet were bare under the folds of a dress. The toes were long and grasped the earth. They were not toes but talons, hooked and pointed, dripping with blood" (130). In horror Julian slips away, but it takes great effort to wrest himself free of her compelling stare. Awakening one night, he ponders that the same stars which look down upon him also look down upon the stone idol: "She had haunted me since the moment when I had fled the clearing. Soon, this very day … I must meet her half-closed eyes and stony gaze and face her down" (136).

Most impressively, The Captive is a study of a character in transition. Julian's immense psychological changes only become apparent near the book's end. The dwarf tells Julian that even as he is being venerated, vanquishing armies approach led by Don Luis, thought killed in the shipwreck. In fact he is alive, and swiftly emerging as a threat to Julian's godship. Julian urges immediate action: "I was astounded at myself in urging war on Don Luis. Astounded that suddenly I had spoken, not as Julian Escobar, a seminarian, a lover of peace, a follower of the meek St. Francis, but as a powerful god Kukulcan" (196).

The full extent of his debasement is apparent later that day. In the rarefied atmosphere atop the temple, he stands unmoved as victims are sacrificed. Chests are ripped open, hearts snatched out, and bodies dumped over the parapet. "I had watched the sacrifices with growing disgust, but somehow they were distant, a happening that was not related to me, that would have taken place in memory of me had I not been there" (209).

The complete transformation is apparent in a scene eerie because of its similarity with the Biblical temptation of Jesus by Satan. Cantu regales Julian with the splendor of the imperial city they shall build together:

The dwarf touched my arm. "Who are you now?" he asked. "Escobar or Kukulcan? Seminarian or Lord of the Shield that Mirrors the Sky?" With the same sly calculation I had often noticed, he studied my face. Not waiting for an answer, he answered me: "The seminarian, I can see, is dead."

I could not deny him.

Scott O'Dell's talents are not limited to breathing life into specific characters, however. He is also able to evoke the more general nature of a society through his skilled use of language. Julian lives his entire adventure in a world that is pervasively masculine, though O'Dell doesn't tell us that, but rather shows us through his language. Surrounded by Captain Roa, by Don Luis, by Balthasar Guzman, and by a variety of less important seamen like the barber-astronomer Juan Pacheco, Julian is only vaguely aware of this male domination. In such a society, women are minimal figures. While at sea, Julian enjoys some orange conserve with a seaman, Alberto Barrios. The source of the conserve is described merely as "the girl from Cadiz" (73), a subtle way of reinforcing the female's role in society. Later, when Julian discovers the secret visitor to his camp is a girl, he notes similarities between her and his sister, though in his musings the sister is never named.

For the first two-thirds of the book there are no female characters. Then, following the shipwreck, author O'Dell abruptly shifts to a more bucolic mood, and introduces two women. The first is a female character so strong, so grotesquely ugly, that she is indeed masculine in impact. The stone idol, towering to twice tall Julian's height, is an aggressive intruder into this male world. The contrast is even more apparent because of the idol's explicit sexuality. In contrast, the other female, black-haired Ceela, is a lovely nocturnal visitor who leaves behind objects to make Julian's life easier. Yet until he surprises her at the idol, he doesn't realize she is a woman: "I had thought I was alone, but as the light grew, I made out a figure lying prone, arms outstretched … clothed in a scarlet huipal. It was the same person, man or boy, I had seen in the meadow" (138). Not until she hears him, rises startled and turns to face him, does he realize it is a woman!

In addition to the masculine dominance which characterizes this society, a second aspect O'Dell describes at length is the pervasiveness of death which further defines this society. Sometimes death comes from natural, unidentified causes. When the Spaniards find only one survivor on an abandoned carrack, he tells of the rest: "Their limbs turned black and gangrenous. Their gums grew over their teeth" (17). Death must have in this case been slow and painful.

In contrast, the swiftness of unexpected death is a chilling undercurrent throughout the book. The men's daily companion is regarded calmly, the results described tersely:

A sailor, Juan Sosa, was climbing the mainmast when he suddenly paused. At the same moment I heard a whisper, as if a breeze had sprung up, and a flight of arrows passed over my head. Clutching himself, Juan fell backward into the sea.

Sometimes death comes at the hand of many. At other times a single enemy dispatches a victim. Such descriptions are as terse as the death is sudden. After Barrios's plot to take over the ship is foiled, Guzman "felled him with one thrust of the sword" (76). No more is said. At other times the death is described more fully. Usually these descriptions involve meticulous detailing of the Spaniards' cruelty. After the Indians have deserted the gold mining operation, Guzman and Don Luis bring them back.

Somewhere in the middle of the line a man with gray hair, overcome with exhaustion, or perhaps fear … fell to his knees, struggled to get up but failed. Guzman reached down and swung his sabre. The rope severed, the old man's head flew off and rolled into the surf. Thus freed of the encumbering body, the Indians moved on.

The Spanish are not alone in their inhumanity, however. Some of the more war-like Indian tribes would with equal enthusiasm dispatch the Spanish. A Carib chieftain and his crew of one hundred men confront the Spanish sailors: "‘Dogs,’ the cacique said, ‘We come to eat your arms and legs and fingers. We shall consume your flesh with sweet mango sauce’" (54). In such examples as these we see O'Dell's willingness to use language as brutally as the men treat each other. Through his brief, direct descriptions, he forces readers to confront their reactions. Certainly other authors describe death, but in cushioning its impact in more abstract, or in more extensive language, they soften the effect on readers.

Teachers and children might choose to read this book—like many others—for differing reasons. O'Dell's skill as a creator of an exciting plot will attract child readers. His skilled use of language will help teachers accomplish important instructional purposes. After reading the entire book aloud for the literary enjoyment that must always be a first purpose, teachers might return to this text as a way to influence the language growth of children as described earlier by Norton and Huck.

This paper identifies some of the exemplary uses O'Dell makes of language to foreshadow, define in context, create imagery, repeat for emphasis, alter syntax length, describe setting and characters, describe movement, show change in character, and evoke the nature of society. To make children consciously aware of one of these uses, a teacher might pick out examples throughout the book, show them to children on a transparency or ditto, and discuss them with a class. Sometimes the instruction ends there, with the teacher's awareness that such overt discussion of literary elements will have subliminal influence on children's own writing at some later date.

Or, the teacher might make a more conscious link with children's own writing. Perhaps after discussing O'Dell's use of language to establish setting, both interior and exterior, a writing assignment might involve students in writing their own descriptions.

It would be unwise to identify all the language uses in any book, and study each of them in turn with a class. Such extensive analysis activities would undoubtedly turn students' initial, and unconsidered positive responses to books to negative ones. Nonetheless, through careful study of a book, and judicious use of some parts of it with a class, teachers can enhance children's growth through literature to more powerful language of their own.

Works Cited

Cullinan, Bernice. Literature and the Child. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981.

Huck, Charlotte. Children's Literature in the Elementary School. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1987.

Norton, Donna. Through the Eyes of a Child. Columbus: Charles E. Merrill Publishing Co., 1987.

O'Dell, Scott. The Captive. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979.


Barbara H. Baskin and Karen H. Harris (review date 1984)

SOURCE: Baskin, Barbara H., and Karen H. Harris. Review of The Feathered Serpent, by Scott O'Dell. In More Notes from a Different Drummer: A Guide to Juvenile Fiction Portraying the Handicapped, p. 339. New York, N.Y.: R. R. Bowker, 1984.

This sequel to The Captive [The Feathered Serpent ] continues the adventures of Julián Escobar as he attempts to consolidate his power over the Mayan community that has accepted his claim to be the god, Kukulcán. The youth, nevertheless, aspires to bring Christianity to the Indians and re-establish the former grandeur of their city. His ambitious plans necessitate the enslavement of natives and his acquiescence in the human sacrifices that are a central component of Mayan religious ceremonies, behaviors his increasingly compromised conscience allow. He determines to visit the fabled city of Tenochtitlán and meets its ruler, Moctezuma. Julián forces his reluctant mentor, the dwarf Cantú, to accompany him. They narrowly escape disaster and leave the Aztec capital, encountering Cortés during their attempted return. Pressed into his service, they flee after an indecisive battle between the forces of the conquistador and the Indians and continue their journey home.

* * *

Analysis: Cantú's role and personality remain virtually unchanged in this second installment of O'Dell's projected multivolume work, City of the Seven Serpents. Cantú's frail constitution, unequal to the rigorous demands of his protégé's escapades, is the cause of some of the plot complications. Considerably less satisfying than the original, in this novel, one violent, dramatic event follows close upon another with little attention paid to character development or cultural and historical insights.


Joan S. Nist (review date November 1988)

SOURCE: Nist, Joan S. Review of Streams to the River, River to the Sea: A Novel of Sacagawea, by Scott O'Dell. English Journal 77, no. 7 (November 1988): 88.

O'Dell, the Newbery- and Andersen-honored chronicler of Native Americans, retells the story of the early life of Sacagawea, guide to Lewis and Clark [in Streams to the River, River to the Sea ]. The Shoshone girl is kidnapped by the Minnetarees and married at fourteen against her will to the half-breed trader Charbonneau. With him, she is hired to guide the expedition soon after her son is born. During the long, arduous trip to the Pacific, she falls in love with Captain Clark. Use of first-person narrative and rhythmic prose gives dimension to the historical characters, especially the brave heroine. Indian culture is described sympathetically.


Language Arts (review date January 1993)

SOURCE: Review of Black Star, Bright Dawn, by Scott O'Dell. Language Arts 70, no. 1 (January 1993): 63.

The excitement of the Iditarod, the annual dog sled race from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska, comes alive through the eyes of Bright Dawn [in Black Star, Bright Dawn ]. When her father is injured while training for the race, the young Eskimo girl with her favorite lead dog, Black Star, takes his place. With spirit, courage, and teamwork, Bright Dawn and Black Star overcome treacherous terrain; outwit a belligerent bull moose; and live through a dangerous white-out, adrift on an ice floe, to finish the grueling 1000 mile race. Teamwork on several levels is illustrated in this exciting book. An appealing and readable glimpse into Eskimo culture, this book also gives the reader insight into the value of working with others to achieve a goal.


Margaret A. Bush (review date March-April 1992)

SOURCE: Bush, Margaret A. Review of Thunder Rolling in the Mountains, by Scott O'Dell and Elizabeth Hall. Horn Book Magazine 68, no. 2 (March-April 1992): 205.

Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce nation is a featured figure in Scott O'Dell's final novel [Thunder Rolling in the Mountains ], but the story belongs more fully to its narrator, Joseph's daughter Sound of Running Feet. Based heavily on eyewitness accounts and recollections of survivors, the sad tale of displacement recounts the dreadful winter of 1877, when the Nez Perce of the Wallowa Valley in Oregon fled the U.S. Army troops who were forcing them to move to a reservation in Montana. Sound of Running Feet describes the hardships of the journey, the many deaths of loved ones, and her own ultimate decision to leave her father's dwindling band and escape to Canada rather than surrender to the army. Events and characters are sketched quickly, and the many short scenes of the trek and the fighting become a sort of awful travelogue. The situation is compelling and reminiscent of the more frequently told story of the flight of the Cherokee people. "The people waited for my father to say more. When he was silent they wandered off to the lodge. I heard no cries and no weeping. They had swallowed their tears." The title of the book, suggestive of the troubling pursuit of the soldiers, is taken from the name granted to Joseph at his entrance to manhood. There is irony in the name since the strongly pacifist Joseph chose to lead his people in flight rather than to defend their land. Scott O'Dell died before completing the novel, which was finished very capably by his wife, Elizabeth Hall. The economical and graceful narrative of a memorable story is a fitting capstone to the long career of this most distinguished creator of historical fiction.



Buell, Ellen Lewis. Review of Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O'Dell. New York Times Book Review (22 March 1960): 40-1.

Comments that O'Dell's prose style in Island of the Blue Dolphins is "unemotional but evocative."

Heins, Paul. Review of Child of Fire, by Scott O'Dell. Horn Book Magazine 50, no. 6 (December 1974): 695-96.

Argues that, in Child of Fire, "the story and the characters lack dimension."

Loke, Margarett. "Splitting Is Hard." New York Times Book Review (30 April 1978): 53.

Critical reading of Kathleen, Please Come Home, which characterizes the plot as "unsettling in a number of ways."

Additional coverage of O'Dell's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vols. 3, 44; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 3; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5; Children's Literature Review, Vols. 1, 16; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61-64; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 12, 30, 112; Contemporary Authors—Obituary, Vol. 129; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 30; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 52; Junior DISCovering Authors; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Something about the Author, Vols. 12, 60, 134; and Writers for Young Adults.