Monday, February 6, 2012

The Winner's Circle: Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O'Dell (1961)

Sometimes, in literature as in life, it is after one has lost everything that one finds the greatest strength. And so it is in Scott O'Dell's Island of the Blue Dolphins, one of the loneliest children's books ever written -- and whose heroine, Karana, is one of the strongest protagonists in all of children's literature.

The list of obstacles Karana must overcome is stunning. Her mother is dead before the book opens, and her father and most of the men in her tribe are killed in a skirmish with the Aleuts on page 23. The rest of the tribe, including her sister, sail away for the mainland, but Karana realizes her younger brother has been left behind and swims back to shore to take care of him. However, he is killed by a pack of wild dogs seven pages later, and for almost the entire rest of the book, Karana is the only human character. Left with no companionship or assistance, needing to master skills that her culture had barred her from learning for gender reasons (such as weaponmaking), and having no timetable at all for rescue, Karana not only doesn't curl up and die, but overcomes every challenge that the world can throw at her.

And so, on the one hand, Island of the Blue Dolphins is the ultimate survival story, one more impressive than Robinson Crusoe, The Swiss Family Robinson, and Hatchet put together. On the other, it's a meditation on transience and loss, on appreciating beautiful moments while knowing that they can't be preserved. Karana's dog, Rontu, becomes her constant companion and partner in exploration -- but he grows old and dies well before the novel's end. One summer, when the Aleuts return to hunt otters, they bring with them a girl named Tutok, who becomes Karana's secret friend -- but she leaves with the others at the end of the summer and never returns. Throughout the book, Karana comes across places and items on the island that once had significance to her people, but she doesn't know the stories that go with them and has no way of obtaining them.

There's a sadness here that extends well beyond the margins of the pages. There is a real Island of the Blue Dolphins: San Nicolas, one of the Channel Islands off the coast of California. There was a real woman who lived there in isolation for eighteen years after being left behind when the rest of her tribe evacuated the island. "Now that the white men had come back," Karana says in the last chapter, after the ship finally arrives for her, "I could not think of what I would do when I went across the sea." And we know, though Karana does not, that there is almost no answer to that question; within two months of the real Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island's rescue, she was dead of dysentery. The missionaries called her Juana Maria, but what she called herself is lost -- by the time of her rescue, all of the other members of her tribe were dead or gone, and no one who could speak her language could be found. (O'Dell's sequel to Island, Zia, does present an alternate history in which at least a few of the tribe's members survive.)

And yet, however tragic Karana's story may be, she is undefeated by it. She describes the small joys that her lonely life provides with utter sincerity, and though the novel's tone is melancholy, it never becomes bitter or nihilistic. Even when the rest of the world has abandoned her, Karana finds value in her animals, her crafts, her hand-constructed home on the headland. Her life has intrinsic meaning, which remains even when all extrinsic meaning is gone.

As for the novel's Newbery award, I'd say it's richly deserved. The best-remembered of that year's other books is probably The Cricket in Times Square, which I read as a child and enjoyed, and which remains a much-loved classic, but doesn't have the same emotional heft as Island of the Blue Dolphins. This is a powerful book, and one that more than earned its Medal.


  1. I remember loving this book as a child, but I don't think then I realized the finality or desperation of the protagonist's situation. I think I approached it as "wouldn't it be lovely to live all alone and do what you want." It's interesting now to read this review and realize how painfully isolated she must have been. Perhaps it's time I reread the book myself.

    1. I read it as an adult, but based on other books I read, I think I probably would have been more interested in it as an adventure story if I'd read it as a child. It's a rewarding adult read though, with a lot more depth.