Book Review: Island of the Blue Dolphins

O’Dell, Scott. Island of the Blue Dolphins. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1960.

In the Pacific there is an island that looks like a big fish sunning itself in the sea. Around it, blue dolphins swim, otters play, and sea elephants and sea birds abound. Once, Indians also lived on the island. And when they left and sailed to the east, one young girl was left behind.

This is the story of Karana, the Indian girl who lived alone for years on the Island of the Blue Dolphins. Year after year, she watched one season pass into another and waited for a ship to take her away. But while she waited, she kept herself alive by building a shelter, making weapons, finding food, and fighting her enemies, the wild dogs. It is not only an unusual adventure of survival, but also a tale of natural beauty and personal discovery.

In addition to being the Newbery Medal winner for 1961, and a book I enjoyed as a child, I wanted to read this next because it was mentioned a few times in Doggirl by Robin Brande. Karana’s story is based on a true story of a Native American woman who lived alone for 18 years on an island not far off the coast of California. Not much is known about the woman, christened Juana Maria after being rescued, because nobody from her tribe was still alive by that time, and nobody spoke her exact language. Perhaps she herself didn’t speak the exact language of her people, living alone for so long with nobody to talk to that could answer her back. So Scott O’Dell took the facts that are known and invented his own details to fill in what her life may have been like, and the difficulties she may have encountered.

This book is kind of like the movie Castaway. Except our main character is a young girl (probably about twelve or thirteen when the book starts), and instead of a volleyball she tames one of the wild dogs to keep as a pet and watchdog. And she is alone on the island a lot longer than Tom Hanks’ Chuck. And… okay, so there are not many real similarities, but fans of the movie will probably like the book.

I am amazed at the strength of Karana. The key to her survival is a past spent living off the land, watching the elders of her tribe and learning how to catch fish, which plants are edible and which aid in healing, and how to prepare stocks of food to last the winter. What’s amazing to the reader is nothing more than common sense to her. It is how she has lived her entire life, the only difference is that now she must do it alone.

I remember that I loved this book as a child mostly because it was a strong female character who can take care of herself. There was a little bit of a pint-sized feminist in me, and I always wanted to read books about girls who were better than boys, and about girls who didn’t always go along with the crowd.

Karana is a great role model for young girls because she does what’s right. She kills many wild dogs and other animals for her survival, but not for sport. Rontu (a name she gives the wild dog that means “fox eyes”) is first the leader of the wild dogs. A little while after she shoots him and he staggers off, she looks to see if he is dead. She finds him barely alive, and feels pity for him. She brings him home and nurses him back to health, gradually gaining his trust, and he never returns to the wild again. It is a great illustration of the way Native Americans care about the planet. Yes, she hunts for survival. But she sees animals as being much like people, her only companions, so she stops killing them unless she has to. At the beginning she wants to kill all of the wild dogs, and after saving Rontu’s life she decides she will kill no more. After befriending a sea otter, she decides not to kill any more of them either.

I don’t think I have to say, but I love this book. I read it in two days. It’s a classic, it stands the test of time, and I hope that I one day have a daughter I can share it with. Scott O’Dell followed Island of the Blue Dolphins with a sequel published 16 years later. Zia is about Karana’s neice, who believes her aunt is still alive and eventually brings about Karana’s rescue. That’s next on my reading list, so I should be posting a review of that one next week.

One thought on “Book Review: Island of the Blue Dolphins

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Zia | Judging the Book

Comments are closed.