THIS NOVEL IS, apparently, only the first part of a longer work, promised for future publication. Whether or not it will gain enormously by subsequent revelations can be no real concern of the reviewer, or, for that matter, of the purchaser and the reader. It must stand or fall by itself. One does not, after all, buy an automobile on the understanding that the engine will follow in a year or so.
Scott O'Dell is a much-honored author, a real general of children's literature who comes with as many medals as a prize-winning Swiss chocolate. Therefore he must be judged by the highest standards as one's expectations are keenly aroused. Alas, they are not fulfilled. We all understand what is meant by a good bad book. It is a book that is thoroughly reprehensible and lacking in all the higher qualities of literature, such as moral values, philosophy, construction, character-drawing and general credibility, and yet contrives to be thoroughly readable. Such a book as, say, The Scarlet Pimpernel. Well, The Captive is what I can only describe as a bad good book. It is good inasmuch as it is well constructed, well researched, contains many interesting items of unfamiliar knowledge, and displays unimpeachable moral worth (Mr. O'Dell comes out very strongly against Slavery, Murder and Human Sacrifice; he doesn't hold with them for a moment!); but it is not very readable. It is inclined to be ponderous, and the prose style reminds one of a careful translation.
The story, told in the first person, is of Julian Escobar, a young seminarian who embarks with the conquistadors for the New World, where he witnesses the monstrous behavior of those who seek for gold. He is, naturally, horrified and repelled; and yet his own course proves to be not entirely beyond reproach. In his zeal to do good, Julian falls victim to the sin of spiritual pride and an apt parallel is drawn with Christ's Temptation in the wilderness.
It is a strong theme and might have been a gripping tale . . . but for the author's refusal to become involved in it. The very reference at the end to the Temptation in the wilderness is thought of as "the scene where Satan took Christ unto an exceeding high mountain." The scene . Surely no Spanish seminarian would think of Holy Writ in such theatrical terms! And so it is throughout. There is no immediacy. One gets the impression that the author is looking at a series of pictures and carefully describing them. At no time are we really with the hero. We receive no impression of his sensations. There are none of those touches that enliven the imagination. When our hero's hands are bound behind his back, there seems to be no reaction, no sense of helplessness, of indignity.
I looked into a copy of Don Quixote, thinking that, perhaps, O'Dell was modeling his own refusal to be perturbed, or even interested in what was going on, after the manner of a 16th-century Spanish author. I found a passage where a man was in chains. The character, explaining what it was like, remarked that, in order to pass the time, he and his fellow prisoners amused themselves by seeing how far they could jump in their chains. It is just that sort of shaft of imagination that The Captive lacks, that shaft of imagination that illuminates the narrative and makes it live.
It may be that I am being unjust, and that future developments will illuminate all and justify what has gone before. I hope so, for I would not like to think that so admirable an author as Scott O'Dell (The Island of the Blue Dolphins was a splendid book) has fallen so far from his own high standards. As it is, I can only recommend the present book to those with a passionate desire to know more about the history and culture of the Mayan Indians. The jacket design, by the way, is peculiarly repellent and represents, presumably, the hero, scantily clad in what appear to be a couple of tea-towels, apparently waving goodbye to several large pink blancmanges.