Island of the Blue Dolphins

May 23, 2017

Island of the Blue Dolphins. Scott O’Dell. 1960. 194 pages. Houghton Mifflin. [Source: personal copy.]

Admittedly, this is a book I should have read years ago. Like, over 20 years ago when my grandmother gave me a copy. But a good book is both timeless and ageless, so when my little one had to read it for class, I decided it was past time for me to read it as well.  I’m upset that I didn’t read this sooner; 10-year-old me would have loved it; adult me, however, had better context for the book and appreciated it more than I could have at that age.

Island of the Blue Dolphins centers on Karana, a 12-year-old girl whose family lives on the remote island of San Nicolas. It recounts the coming of Aleuts, who exploit the island’s resources, hunting and failing to pay what they agreed to the island’s inhabitants.  The result is a decimated population, with many of the men gone, and the women and children left to figure out how to survive.  One day, another ship comes, bearing people who will take the inhabitants to a new home.  Everything is fine until Karana’s brother is left behind and she jumps ship to stay with him.  When he dies suddenly, Karana is left alone on the island to fend for herself.

This is an emotionally moving story. It’s told in a matter-of-fact manner that younger readers can follow. However, as an adult, I was pulled into the story for what it didn’t say. Karana deals with grief, fear, isolation, depression and more over her time on the island, but does so in nuanced ways.   On more than one occasion, I wondered whether she would make it out alive.  It was also captivating to see her navigate the development of more mature thoughts and feelings, despite now having adults around to guide her.  Having an adult understanding of the historical context of the novel, I also understood the implications for the Aleuts and others’ interactions with Karana’s community.  The interference of outsiders had disastrous impacts on their way of life, from which the community never recovered. I also appreciated how vividly the author describes the island, it’s flora and fauna, and Karana’s approach to making a life there.  Hearing historical terms for the animals — devilfish for an octopus, for example — made reading this book more fun since I didn’t always know the modern term for the animals.

What I didn’t realize when I started is that Island of the Blue Dolphins is actually a fictional account of real events. Karana’s experiences were inspired by Juana Maria, a woman who was found on the island in 1853.  While this is a fictionalized account, it realistically depicts what it could have been like for her struggling to stay alive with limited resources and even less knowledge of how to best use them for her benefit. It’s clear why this has been a standard in curriculum and a must-read for a few generations.  I absolutely recommend it; it’s a great example of self-reliance, perseverance in the face of uncertain adversity.

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