Reading Island of the Blue Dolphins for the First Time

I’ve just read Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960) by Scott O’Dell for the first time. What a delightful, wonderful book. I’m somewhat disappointed that I didn’t have the experience of reading it as a child, but I got to read it with my daughter, and it was fun. She started reading it on her own, as the book was a gift from one of her aunties. However, after the first few chapters, she brought it to me and explained that it was a little bit scary. Karana’s brother dies in the first few chapters, and she finds herself alone on the island, so my daughter wasn’t quite sure she wanted to continue reading it on her own. I was more than happy to read it to her, and we started over from the beginning.

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The book is an account of Karana’s life on the island. She lives there with her tribe, which is attacked by Aleut hunters who traveled there for otter hunting. The tribal leader asks for half of the pelts hunted, but the Aleuts try to leave without paying up, and a battle ensues. This leaves the tribe somewhat devastated, and a new leader ends up taking a canoe off to another land to find help. He never returns, but later a ship of white men come and pick up the whole tribe. However, Karana realizes that her younger brother has not made it onto the ship as it is leaving, so she jumps from it and swims to shore to be with him. The two live together, trying to survive on the island, and then Karana finds herself alone after her brother dies from wild dogs attacking him. He was too young to go out alone, but he had left while Karana was sleeping in order to prove himself.

The rest of the novel traces Karana’s attempts to survive, and her resourcefulness. My favorite parts involved her learning to make tools and a canoe, for she was told by the men of her tribe that only men could make such tools and that if a woman did it she would die. Karana doesn’t die. She uses those tools to her advantage, and she even makes a large spear for hunting what she calls the “devilfish.” In a particularly exciting episode, she spears one (it is a large squid), but in the fight to keep it on the beach, its tentacles attack her and her dog, and they ultimately lose it and never attempt to spear one again.

A heartwarming aspect of this survival book is Karana’s dog, Rontu. He is the leader of the pack of wild dogs, but Karana decides to attack them after they kill her brother. She wounds Rontu in her attack, but ultimately takes pity and nurses him back to health. He stays with her and they become companions. Karana also learns to love other animals, and vows toward the end of her adventure not to harm another otter, sea elephant, or wild dog. She comes to appreciate animals and the companionship they give her over the years she spends on the island.

Yes, she spends years there. Eventually, a ship comes and she goes with the men on the ship. She is taken to the Santa Barbara Mission in California, where a priest learns her story. This end to the novel comes from the real life story. Yes, this was a true story. A woman really lived on that island alone for many years, her brother really died there, and the ship that carried her tribe never returned because it had sunk. If she hadn’t jumped from it, she would’ve died too. I was shocked to learn that this Newbery Medal book was based on a true story, and it made my engagement with the narrative seem more real and more worthwhile in some ways.

This book is a must-read in terms of young adult literature, especially when it comes to books about survival. I think these types of books appeal to young people because of the autonomy and freedom such novels represent. They are a different type of fantasy book, one that seems real and within reach, if scary and somewhat uncertain. I think most children have dreamed of being on their own or wondered just how savvy and sophisticated they could be surviving off of the land without parents or technology. This book gives us a taste of that, and I loved every minute of it.

Every time somebody came to my house and saw the book on the side table, waiting for its evening reading with me and my daughter, they would comment on how much they had enjoyed that book as a child. I suspect that if you haven’t yet read this one, you’ll enjoy it too.

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