Three by Scott O’Dell

My fifth-grade teacher used to hold raffles every few weeks as a reward for the students with good grades.

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He’d put their names in a box, and those who were picked (I don’t remember how many) got to choose from a number of prizes.

Aspiring nerd that I was, I of course chose a book:  Island of the Blue Dolphins.  It might have been an Ocean Girl-related choice, though I honestly can’t remember if I’d already started watching the show by then.  Or it might have been part of my dolphin phase (come on girls, raise your hands if you, too, went through a dolphin phase 😉 ).

Oddly enough, I was never curious enough to read O’Dell’s other works, until now.

I’ll give a brief(-ish) synopsis of the three I read this month, followed by my overall reflections.

AlexandraScott O’Dell.  Alexandra.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984.  146 pgs.

Alexandra Dimitrios comes from a family of sponge divers in Tarpon Springs, Florida.  It’s traditionally a man’s job, but when the family is hit by tragedy, Alexandra is called to join her grandfather aboard the Cybele and learn the trade herself.

As her skills develop beyond expectations, so does the attention of her sister’s boyfriend, Spyros… and Alexandra isn’t so sure that’s a bad thing.  More puzzling, though, is the attention of George Kanarsis, a Miami businessman who’s willing to pay oddly high sums for the Dimitrios’ sponges.

The Captive.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979.  211 pgs.The Captive

A young seminarian, Julián Escobar, is called to join an expedition to the Caribbean island of Buenaventura.  In his small village outside Seville, he could be a humble priest, but in the New World, he could be a saver of souls, converting thousands to Christianity.

But long before he reaches Buenaventura, Julián starts to wonder about his role – is he really being brought along as a missionary, or is he actually an accessory to the enslavement of the native communities?

This is the first part of O’Dell’s trilogy, City of the Seven Serpents, which was inspired by O’Dell’s travels through Central and South America, and is based on the history of the Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas.  The Captive and its sequel, The Feathered Serpent, are inspired by the story of the Mayan god Kukulcán (known by the Aztecs as Quetzalcoatl), and the use of that story by Spanish conquistadors to exploit the native population.

ZiaZia.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976.  179 pgs.

Long ago, Zia’s mother and her community left the Island of the Blue Dolphins and settled in the mountains of Southern California.  Now Zia and her brother, Mando, are the only survivors left of their family.

Unless they can find Karana.  Zia grew up with the story of her aunt, who was left behind on the island and has lived alone for eighteen years.  That is why Zia came to the seaside Mission Santa Barbara – perhaps she could find someone who would sail to the island and bring back Karana.

But the Mission is not as welcome a place as Zia once thought, and soon she’s caught in the middle of a struggle between her fellow workers and the Mission leaders.

. . . . .

Themes and settings:

I like O’Dell’s focus on indigenous communities in works like Island of the Blue Dolphins, The Captive and Zia; the seaside settings, which reflect O’Dell’s childhood, growing up in the Los Angeles area (some of my favorite descriptions were of the underwater landscape in Alexandra – the brilliantly clear water, the amber-eyed groupers, the coral-filled caverns…); and the environmental themes.  In the four books I’ve read, each of his main characters has some moment of understanding or sympathy with a wild creature, often in spite of his or her peers’ and/or community’s attitudes.

And that points to another interesting theme.  At some moment, each of the adolescent narrators discovers weakness or corruption among the adults he or she once trusted.  You could call it a coming-of-age moment, when each narrator has to make an independent, controversial decision.

The one time this theme isn’t carried out so well is toward the end of The Captive.  Without giving any spoilers, I found Julián’s response to Cantú’s proposition unbelievably quick and out of character, considering his established principles.

. . . .

Tone and pacing:

There were times in Zia when the tone felt too dry and matter-of-fact, which made Zia and her experiences feel distant.  In one passage, for example, when the head of a local garrison is questioning her, Zia says:  “I felt embarrassed and afraid.”[1]  But her actions don’t seem to match that.  It’s like Jane Austen’s tone at the beginning of Sense and Sensibility, when she tells us what a character is feeling, without showing really concrete evidence (more on that here).

Likewise, Alexandra’s description of her feelings after the tragedy seemed strangely dry, and the transition to the next part of the plot felt too quick.

There were moments in The Captive, on the other hand, that seemed to drag on, especially in the second half.  The pace did pick up after a while, but even then, I didn’t feel as drawn to the characters or events as I did when reading Alexandra and Zia.  I started reading The Feathered Serpent the other day, but the story just didn’t pull me in.

. . . .

Overall:

Out of the above three books, I liked Zia and Alexandra best.  The conflicts felt more compelling, and the narrators’ ultimate decisions made more sense.  There were moments in The Captive that drew me in, like when Julián begins to study the Mayan language and religion (P.S. I love that O’Dell uses Mayan numerals for each chapter), but then he started acting too out-of-character and I found myself not caring anymore.

. . . .

See O’Dell’s website for more on his life, and how he chose the themes and settings for his stories (Note– the Captive summary, on the “Books by Scott” page, contains spoilers).

Some interesting bits:

  • His birth name was Odell Scott, but a typesetter accidentally switched the names on an article.  O’Dell liked the name, so he legally changed it.
  • He’s related to Sir Walter Scott, and it was that discovery which convinced O’Dell to become a writer.
  • He worked for Paramount Pictures and MGM, helping make movies like the silent Ben Hur.  Also, his fingers appear in Son of the Sheik.

[1] Zia, pg 122.

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