The OF Blog: Scott O'Dell, Island of the Blue Dolphins (1961 Newberry Medal winner)

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Scott O'Dell, Island of the Blue Dolphins (1961 Newberry Medal winner)

I looked out at the blue water stretching away and all the fear I had felt during the time of the voyage came back to me.  On the morning I first sighted the island and it had seemed like a great fish sunning itself, I thought that someday I would make the canoe over and go out once more to look for the country that lay beyond the ocean.  Now I knew that I would never go again.

The Island of the Blue Dolphins was my home; I had no other.  It would be my home until the white men returned in their ship.  But even if they came soon, before next summer, I could not live without a roof or a place to store my food.  I would have to build a house?  But where?

That night I slept on the rock and the next day I began the search.  The morning was clear, but to the north banks of clouds hung low.  Before long they would move in across the island and behind them many other storms were waiting.  I had no time to waste. (p. 79)

Perhaps there was a time, likely somewhere between 8 and 18, where you imagined yourself living alone on a deserted island.  Maybe there were thoughts of rousing adventures or escapes from the tedium of quotidian life.  Or possibly these moments represented an attempt to understand the tales told of the abandoned sailor Alexander Selkirk or the fictional Robinson Crusoe or the Swiss family, the Robinsons.  Whatever the origin of such musings, if they did occur, you likely found yourself reflecting on hardships to be overcome (Where will I get water?  Where will I find something to wipe myself after using the bathroom?  Where can I find food?  Will I be safe at night from wild animals?) as well as dreaming of things to do (building rafts, canoes, making crafts by hand).

Scott O'Dell's classic 1960 historical novel, Island of the Blue Dolphins (which later won the prestigious Newberry Medal for juvenile literature), tries to recreate the possible adventures of a very real woman, the mid-19th century Ghalas-at woman, known then only as The Lost Woman of San Nicolas (the outermost of California's channel islands).  There is nothing fancy about the narrative:  O'Dell recreates from written records some of the major events in the girl/woman he names Karana.  We experience through her twelve year-old point of view the coming of Aleutian and Russian hunters to the island and the deadly clash of cultures.  We see a later arrival of a ship (presumably American) to take the Ghalas-at people to the mainland and Karana's escape from the ship to go save her younger brother, who somehow had been lost during the round-up of the village.  These are events rooted in apparent historical events and O'Dell's use of Karana to depict this is effective, as her voice is "open" enough to allow readers of multiple age groups to plug themselves into the narrative and empathize with Karana's struggles.

O'Dell's prose is not particularly outstanding.  He goes from point A to point B in the narrative with an economy of words.  Considering that the likely target audience for this novel were readers in later elementary grades (ages 8-12), this is not a negative.  A skillful writer can use ordinary tools to great effect and what O'Dell achieves here is a near pitch-perfect account of Karana's life over 18 years, from her time arriving back to the island and the death of her younger brother due to savage wild dogs soon afterward to her eventual rescue after she had reached 30.

The narrative balances itself between the poles of despair and hope.  Karana confronts the difficulties in her life head-on:  she learns how to do "a man's work" quite well and this quiet resoluteness about her may appeal to readers who have learned that if anything has to be done, they have to do it themselves.  There is a subtle, understated beauty in passages that describe the flora and fauna of the island, not just in key scenes such as the description of the eponymous blue dolphins.  Beauty in desolation often is hard to appreciate, but O'Dell does an excellent job in highlighting the joys in Karana's life as well as the difficulties she overcomes.

Taken as a whole, Island of the Blue Dolphins was a charming book to read as an adult.  If I were younger, say 12 or so?  I would imagine that the book would hold an even greater appeal to me, as it would be a place where I could dream about being left on a deserted isle without feeling too discomfited by the lack of human amenities.  It is a novel that I think will still continue to be popular with young (and older) readers another half-century from now, due to its sympathetic protagonist and the simple yet grand story that unfolds over nearly 200 pages.


Inanna Arthen said...

When I was nine years old, Island of the Blue Dolphins was my favorite book; I read it over and over. It wasn't because I harbored any romantic dreams of living on a deserted island. It was because, as a relentlessly bullied and socially ostracized kid, I was drawn to stories in which protagonists survived alone through their own resourcefulness and hard work. It was a tremendous validation of self-reliance for me, even if the book is very sad. I've always wondered what happened to the real-life "lost woman."

Larry Nolen said...

Good point about another reason why stories like this appeal to others.

As for what happened to the real-life woman, the Lost Woman of San Nicolas died of an illness months after reaching the mainland, likely due to a reaction to food she ate :(

Kathleen said...

I loved that book so much as a young girl. I just read your post with my eyes half covered. :)

Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing.

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