Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell is based on the true story of 19th- century Nicoleño Native American Karana’s 18-year lone survival on California’s San Nicolas Island. When most of the men of the island are killed in a battle with Russian and Aleut fishermen, the remaining Nicoleños decide to travel to the mainland of California. Young teenage Karana, the main character who narrates the whole book, boards the ship, but when seeing her little brother has missed the boat, Karana jumps into the stormy waters and swims back to him. Their reunion is short lived, and soon Karana is mourning the death of her brother and facing living on the island by herself.
What I liked. I liked how O’Dell made such a strong female character; she’s so smart and brave. I loved how she had to learn to make weapons and hunt, normally men’s work. O’Dell introduced kids to the idea of gender roles in such a great way. Karana reminded me a lot of the wonderful May B by Caroline Starr Rose.
What was interesting. Rereading this book as an adult was such a different experience than as a child. As a child, I don’t remember being frightened by this book at all; I just remember thinking that Karana and Julie (of the wolves) were so cool and resourceful. But as an adult thinking about this girl, losing her father, jumping over board to save her brother only to have him killed by wild dogs, then taming one of the fratricidal dogs, surviving 18 years worrying about the patricidal hunters returning, only to finally escape and find out your whole village had died on the boat you jumped off of is. . . a horrifyingly bleak story. Of course, I can see how I didn’t think of it that way as a kid; it’s not written to be very depressing or bleak and Karana is really cool and resourceful, and the reader comes to love the dog Ramo quite a bit as well.
What were some limitations. I felt like in a lot of ways the story ended too soon. What was Karana’s life like in California? How did she come to the mission? How did she think about her time on the island? I think the ending with its few details about what happened to the rest of her people left me wanting a lot more.
Similarity to other Newbery winners. In many ways, Island of the Blue Dolphins feels like a classic Newbery to me: read a lot in school, strong female lead, authentic depiction of Native American culture, and a survivor story. But really it was somewhat ground breaking on that front. 1941 Newbery Call It Courage is a Polynesian boy survivor story, and Invincible Louisa, Caddie Woodlawn, Roller Skates, Thimble Summer, and Strawberry Girl all had strong and brave female protagonists. And like 1973 Jean Craighead George’s Julie of the Wolves, I’m guessing that I’ll find traces of the spirit of Island of the Blue Dolphins in Newberies that follow it.
What it teaches me as a writer. One thing I keep circling back to in reading these Newberies (I wrote about it first in Carry on Mr. Bowditch) is the importance of the protagonists as a problem-solving guide—noticing important details, thinking through possible problems, and ultimately solving the challenge at hand. It’s what makes some of my favorite books like The Martian, The Swiss Family Robinson, May B, and The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency so great. (It seems to be a hallmark of detective and survivor stories…perhaps that means I’d enjoy the classic Robinson Crusoe and Sherlock Holmes books?)
Have you read Island of the Blue Dolphin? What are your favorite survivor books?
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