- Apologizing for Scott O'Dell—Too Little, Too Late
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,(x)
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 [End Page 199] (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...