Island of the Blue Dolphins

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NEWBERY MEDAL WINNER – 1961

Island of the Blue Dolphins

by Scott O’Dell

Age: 10+

Interests: survival, strong girls, indigenous peoples, history, independence, island life, animals, dogs

Houghton Mifflin: 1960

181 pages

Also by this author: Zia (sequel to Island of the Blue Dolphins), The Black Pearl, The King’s Fifth, Sing Down the Moon, My Name is Not Angelica

Other books about wilderness survival: Call it Courage, Julie of the Wolves, Hatchet, Starbuck Valley Winter

Karana is a young girl whose tribe lives on a small island off the California coast in 1835. When white traders come to hunt otters a dispute leads to violence and many of her tribesmen are killed, including her father, the chief. The reduced manpower means very hard times for her people, and the entire tribe decides to leave their island with a missionary ship. A storm approaches as the ship begins to leave the bay, and Karana realizes her little brother Ramo has been accidentally left behind. The ship cannot go back for him because of the storm, so she leaps off the ship and swims back to the island. Sister and brother settle in to wait for the ship’s return, for it will certainly come back for them when the weather allows. Days pass and Ramo is killed by feral dogs, leaving Karana well and truly alone, and with a new challenge. Females of her tribe were forbidden to hunt, or even to make weapons, and at first Karana is too frightened to break those taboos, uncertain of what terrible thing might happen if she does. Facing starvation, she finally makes a spear and is relieved when no punishment befalls her. She hunts for food and wages a bitter war on the hated dogs, until she meets the leader of the pack, whom she tames and names Rontu.

It is increasingly obvious that the ship is not coming back, so Karana resigns herself to building a proper shelter and making longterm plans. She works hard and not only survives, but thrives. Wary of dangerous visitors like their traditional enemies the warlike Aleuts, she prepares a cave to hide out in if anyone should land on her beach. Years pass and she grows wiser and stronger. One summer a ship of Aleut hunters does land on the island. She hides away but is discovered by a young Aleut girl, who to her great surprise does not tell her people of Karana’s presence. The Aleut – Tutok – is lonely and visits Karana in secret. Their friendship is short-lived, as the girl’s people finish their hunting and sail away again. More years pass. Rontu dies and even though she tames another dog, Karana grows more lonely. By the time another ship lands with white visitors and Karana decides not to hide – it is time to leave her island. After eighteen years alone on the island, Karana is taken to a new life on the mainland. (She discovers that the ship with her tribe had wrecked those many years ago, which is why they never returned for her. She is the very last survivor of her people.)

This novel is based on a fascinating true story. A woman really did live alone on that island for eighteen years, until she was found and taken to the mainland by missionaries. Sadly she died of dysentery soon after being found. Only recently have caches of tribal artifacts been found on the island, as well as a cave which seems to have been her hiding place. O’Dell speculates on the exact adventures that she had in her years alone, but the basic details are all factual.

As with any good survival tale, the main character must draw on their own strength of character, intelligence and grit to stay alive. Her situation is made much more difficult by the fact that she was never taught how to hunt, but fortunately she recalls just enough of what she watched the boys doing to figure things out for herself. In so doing, she gains tremendous confidence and strength. She also learns to observe and learn from the animals around her, which is reminiscent of Julie of the Wolves, another novel lamenting a lost culture and way of life. As in that book, Island of the Blue Dolphins¬†is a sad tale of a vanishing way of life, as Karana’s people suffer from outside contact, are unable to continue living in the old way, and finally perish en route to a foreign shore.

An adventure tale but also a voyage of personal discovery, this book is a straightforward read. Some may find it a little slow and plodding. Written in the first person, it is also strangely dispassionate, but this flows naturally from Karana’s no-nonsense personality. Young girls will enjoy the message that girls can do anything that boys can do, and all readers will enjoy the way Karana befriends various animals and birds. The death of Rontu is simply told, but packs an emotional punch. Karana’s growing relationship with the animal world gives her great wisdom, for example her friendship with Rontu immediately dissolves her hatred and desire for revenge on the dogs who killed her brother. And her experiences lead her to be more efficient and humane in her hunting. The short author’s note at the end fills in what is known about the actual woman the story is based on, and may entice readers to learn more about her. This book could also spark a discussion about historical fiction, and how writers use their imagination to fill in the blanks of the story.

A movie version of this book was made in 1964.

 

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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.