While awaiting trial for murder and withholding from the king the obligatory fifth of the gold found in Cibola, Esteban, a 17-year-old cartographer, recalls his adventures with a band of conquistadors.
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Scott O'Dell's The King's Fifth (1966), a runner up for the Newbery Medal, is an absorbing, well-written, and vividly-imagined historical novel. At dusk in 1541 in a prison cell in Vera Cruz, New Spain, the young cartographer Esteban de Sandoval begins writing the account of his adventures seeking the Seven Golden Cities of Cibola in the vast part of the New World marked "Unknown" on maps. He tells us that his trial for treasonously denying the King of Spain his due fifth of a great treasure will begin in two days on his 17th birthday, and that he is writing to "find the answer to all that puzzles me. . . . for if I do not clearly know what I did or why it was done, how can I ask others to know?"
Esteban begins his account by relating how he joined the ambitious and mutinous Captain Mendoza and his four soldier-servants in leaving the Spanish fleet led by Admiral Alarcon whose mission was to deliver supplies to General Cordova's army. Esteban's motive was not to find gold (unlike his fellow explorers, who dream of cities paved with it), but rather to become the first man to map the Unknown territory. He also tells us early on, however, that he began his adventure "not knowing that the dream of gold can bend the soul and even destroy it, unaware that one day it would do the same to me." This is the first of many (perhaps too many) ominous foreshadowing remarks that O'Dell has Esteban make as he tells his story.
Throughout his past tense adventure, Esteban weaves his present tense predicament, having to keep the venal jailor hopeful enough that he'll draw him a detailed map leading to the treasure, and having to appear before the venal judges and venal prosecutor protected only by a rookie legal counsel. In fact, much of the present tense strand of O'Dell's novel reads like a courtroom drama, complete with antagonistic interrogations and surprise witnesses.
The most compelling parts of O'Dell's novel concern Esteban's memories of his experiences exploring much of today's New Mexico and Arizona, including many places and things that few if any white people had seen before. The descriptions of sublime geographical features like the Grand Canyon, impressive Native American villages like Tawi (the cloud city), affecting Native American rituals like greeting the dawn sun, unfamiliar animals like beavers, nightmarish things like a sunken desert "Inferno," and so on, are skillfully done, evoking wonder and fascination. And in general O'Dell does a fine job of working in interesting historical details, like the Spanish idea that California was a mysterious island and the Cortez law forbidding the riding or owning of horses by Indians.
O'Dell depicts the fraught history of the exploration and conquest of New Spain by the Spanish conquistadores with some complexity. To be sure, Mendoza and his party serve as a microcosm of the entire greedy, deceitful, and brutal Spanish presence in the "New World": greed, deceit, and brutality as the invaders tricked and killed Indians for gold and destroyed their villages, etc. while accusing them of being liars and scorning their lives and cultures. Interestingly, although Father Francisco has the right idea when he says that they should be looking at the country they're passing through and its creatures and mountains and clouds "with quiet eyes," Esteban detects in his eyes the same feverish light for saving souls as he sees in the eyes of Mendoza for grabbing gold. At the same time, both men are remarkably brave and charismatic.
O'Dell is a fine writer of potent prose, as when Esteban experiences a coastal storm: "The Cordonazo's first breath had parted a rope. The sail now streamed over our heads like a banner. The sailor rose to save it, but when he reached out the wind lifted him into the air. He fell upon the sea and as a man slides on the deck of a ship, so hard was the surface of the water, he slid past us and out of view." The moment when Mendoza's small party nearly walks over the edge of the Grand Canyon as night has fallen is sublime: "Below us lay blackness, fold upon fold, deep and endless. From it a warm breeze welled upward, as if the earth itself were breathing." The moment when Esteban bites a heavy gold nugget sees the marks of his teeth in it is intoxicating: "a curious feeling seized me. . . it was like a fever and a sickness. It was as if all the stories of gold that men had told me had suddenly come alive inside me." And O'Dell treats the love between Esteban and the party's Indian girl guide Zia with great restraint and charm: "Her eyes are the color of obsidian stone, so large that I see nothing else."
Jonathan Davis gives his usual masterful reading of the novel, being particularly good with greedy, clever, and hard men and Zia.
Perhaps the novel takes a little too much time to get Esteban on his way to Cibola, but people interested in well-written, well-researched accounts of the exploration and exploitation of the "New World" infused with plenty of universal human heart--especially regarding the fever sickness of gold greed--should read The King's Fifth, though they should also be warned that it, like O'Dell's classic The Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960) is not a cheery tale.
- Jefferson "I love reading and listening to books, especially fantasy, science fiction, children's, historical, and classics."
My 12 year old son listened to this story for a book club but enjoyed it enough to listen to it again. He said it was a bit difficult the first time through to follow who the characters were but that may have been the unfamiliar names. He has listened to it at least 3 times and still enjoys it.