What happens when otter hunters kill the Indian inhabitants of an island off the California coast and one girl is left behind because she jumps off the ship carrying her people away at the last second? Island of the Blue Dolphins happens. The story of Karana, last of her people, is one of adventure, danger, and suspense, and appeals equally to adolescent and adult readers.
Scott O'Dell's novel is basically a girl version of Robinson Crusoe, except instead of being shipwrecked on an island of cannibals, the heroine is marooned on her island home. Initially, however, Karana is the daughter of the great chief Chowig of the Ghalas-at, and the people of her tribe live by hunting, fishing, and gathering shellfish and abalones.
Then a Russian sea captain and his crew of Aleut hunters arrives, demanding the right to land on the island of the Ghalas-at, and promising payment in return. But the Aleuts are liars, and after they fight the men of the Ghalas-at and massacre them, only the old men and women are left to eke out an existence in a hostile and fairly desolate landscape.
Time passes, and the ranks of the tribe dwindle, until one day a ship of friendly white men arrives. The sailors agree to take the people of the Ghalas-at away from their island to safety, but on the day of departure Karana's young brother Ramo is left behind on accident, and rather than leave him to fend for himself on the island she jumps off the ship and swims back to Ramo and the Island of the Blue Dolphins.
Fate is not kind to Karana, however. Despite her desire to protect her kid brother, he is killed by wild dogs almost immediately, and the girl is left completely alone. The village is destroyed, there are no weapons, and wild dogs are all around. Because she's a girl, Karana has never been taught to make weapons or to hunt, and most of the book is about her learning to do so, as well as to build a shelter, make friends with an Aleutian dog, and explore the island by land and sea.
Eventually Karana is rescued, but only after many years of solitary survival. We sense a great sadness as she leaves her island behind, and an uncertainty as to what will befall her in the civilized world. She has made many animal friends (having tamed dogs, birds, and otters) and become entirely self-sufficient, but she also understands that without any human contact death will come sooner than later.
O'Dell fortunately avoids the common trap of creating some kind of mystical bond between Karana and her animal friends. There is one somewhat odd paragraph where he talks about them becoming her friends and her not wanting to hurt animals anymore, but she continues to hunt and fish and survive on the meat.
He also maintains a straightforward realism that nevertheless captures the stark beauty of Karana's island, and he doesn't forgo the use of metaphor as do so many writers of children's novels. Perhaps he was channeling his ancestor Sir Walter Scott (though if he was, he managed to be far more concise than his illustrious progenitor).
Despite all these positive aspects of the novel, it probably wouldn't earn more than three or four stars if not for one thing. The story of an Indian girl surviving for years is fascinating, but there isn't any great point to it all—there's no great epiphany, no major lesson, nothing tying all her experiences together.
But Island of the Blue Dolphins gets five stars. What tips the scales comes after the story is over, in a brief author's note in which O'Dell reveals that his story is modeled on an actual occurrence and a real person, Juana Maria, an Indian woman who stayed on her peoples's island for the same reason Karana returns.
Obviously, O'Dell filled in a lot of blanks, and much that is not known about Karana's real counterpart comes alive here. His book doesn't get five stars just because it's based on a true story, though. It earns its status as a great story in virtue of O'Dell's ability to make his heroine real for us, and to paint a picture of human solitude that is sensitive and powerful without being sentimental or simply the old tired paean to human greatness.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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