Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Black Pearl, by Scott O'Dell

I never read The Black Pearl as a kid. I remember other people in my class reading it (I was in a different reading group) and saying it was boring, so I never picked it up.

The book is set in Baja California, in a town known for its pearling trade. The protagonist is a 16 year old boy named Ramon. The biggest day of his life is the day his father makes him a partner in his business - and Ramon is very happy. But... a desire lingers. It's all very good, being a partner and working in his father's business, but he'd really like to go out pearling with his father. After much discussion, he is allowed to go out in the boat, but not dive. There is one man on his father's crew, the best pearl diver, who bothers Ramon. He is known mostly as The Sevillano. This guy is a bragger and everyone knows most of his stories aren't true, but somehow Ramon is kind of threatened by him. He develops a vision of finding the "Pearl of Heaven" - a big, perfect pearl - that will prove to The Sevillano that he's not all that.

In order to achieve this, he develops a plan. The next time his father is out on a pearling trip, Ramon talks to a man he knows who can teach him to dive for pearls himself. And he gets permission to dive in the man's lagoon. One day when the man is not able to go diving with him, Ramon decides this is his chance - and he goes into a cave that he has been warned is the territory of the "Manta Diablo" - a monster of local legend, mostly used to scare children into behaving themselves, but also truly feared by many local men of the sea. Ramon doesn't worry about this, and is happy when he finds exactly what he wanted - a pearl the size of a grapefruit, and practically perfect.

From here things get a little out of control. When his father tries to demand a high price for the pearl, and none of the local merchants will pay it, he spites them all by giving it to the church instead. And when his fleet is ruined, leaving only one survivor (you guessed it, The Sevillano), Ramon starts to take the whole Manta Diablo thing seriously. For the rest of the book we watch Ramon try to take the pearl out of its bad omen status - first by trying to put it back in the ocean, then fighting for it and eventually giving it to the church himself.

I'm not surprised that my friends in 5th grade didn't like this book much. The language style doesn't read smoothly for a speaker of modern American English, and the plot is mostly inside of Ramon's head - very little actually happens in the book, until the last couple of chapters. But it does pose interesting questions, and I see why it gets used for reading groups. Why didn't the Manta Diablo like when Ramon's father gave the pearl to the church? Would he have been happier if it sold? Did Ramon's actions at the end, after his father's fleet is ruined, actually help? Do you think the Manta Diablo liked Ramon's gift of the pearl to the church better than his father's? What did Ramon have to prove to The Sevillano? Who is the higher power here, the Church or Manta Diablo?

The essay questions practically write themselves.

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