Island of the Blue Dolphins
By Scott O'Dell
Copyright 1960, 1988
Recently I decided to revisit childhood classics - those Newberry Medal winners that made such an impression on me when I was younger.
Island of the Blue Dolphins was my first choice. The title has always stuck with me, and the idea of a young girl, alone on an island, a cast away with no recourse but to survive via her wits, has always appealed to me.
If I were still in college, I would choose this book to write a paper on. I could easily write a treatise on societies for one of my social science courses, or a study of femininity and females for a feminism class, or a study of writing for a writing course, from this small yet noble classic.
The story is based upon a truth - sometime in 1853, white men found a lone woman on a island off of the California coast. She is known to history as the Lost Woman of San Nicolas. Her rescuers, such as they were, named her Juana Maria. Wikipedia at the link has an extensive entry about the real person. She died within 7 weeks of her "saving" from her lonely vigil on her island.
O'Dell's book also was made into a movie, which would add further fodder to a college paper. If I have seen the movie, I do not remember it.
The author named his heroine Karana. She was a young girl of 12 who lived with her tribe on a large island off the coast. The tribe was annoyed by a pack of wild dogs but otherwise lived in harmony with animal inhabitants that included fox, otters, pelicans, and other birds.
Man, it seemed, would be their undoing. The Aleuts, another tribe from the north, led by a white man (O'Dell calls him Russian, I think, which would make sense given the time he wrote the book), visits the island. They come for otter and agree to a trade, but the chief, who is also Karana's father, does not like the trade. Suddenly fighting breaks out and after all is said and done, the men of Karana's tribe are mostly dead, save the old and very young.
The elder tribesman who takes over as leader decides to take a canoe and go for help from the mainland. A year (or two) passes and finally another ship shows up to take the entire remnants of the tribe away from their ancestral home. As the ship leaves, a gale blows up, and Karana realizes her brother has been left behind. She jumps from the ship and swims ashore, thinking the boat will turn around.
But the white men move on, afraid of the dark seas and the strong winds.
Shortly thereafter, Karana's brother is killed by the wild dogs, and the young woman is left alone.
The real Juana Maria apparently was left on the island alone for nearly 20 years. The young woman in O'Dell's book is there a long time - countless summers pass and she is no longer a girl when finally a ship comes for her. But the reader is unsure how long she exists alone.
The scene that makes me shudder in indignation is near the end, when the men sew together trousers to more sufficiently cover the girl, who is brilliant in her skirt of feathers and a special necklace. Of course she must be covered. Of course.
It is difficult to write a book about a single character. Characters must interact with one another. Dialogue? Not happening unless a character talks to herself. O'Dell manages to bypass this burden with animals - a dog here, birds there, and the land itself, which Karana talks to almost like a lover. She makes discoveries and learns how to do things she had seen men do, daring to use tools that only men were supposed to use. She is the epitome of a human, surviving, thinking, and being. Forced to live in the day because she had long given up hope of rescue, her needs were few. In O'Dell's book, anyway, she is not unhappy.
In rereading this book, only one thing struck me as out of place. Why did the young woman tame an older wild dog and not take one of the pups when she had the chance? Surely a pup would have been easier to tame. While I found this part off the mark, the story still holds together as well today as it did when I first read it 45 years ago.
It is an interesting exercise, going back to worlds I once I knew but which are now murky in my memory. I am not sure what my next book will be, but I look forward to the visit.