When Carrie contacted me about being a host for the Reading to Know Bookclub one month, I suggested that she look at my Classics Club booklist and just pick something. She picked Scott O’Dell’s 1960 Newbery Award winning Island of the Blue Dolphins, and at the time I had little interest in it. (Confession: it made my TBR list because I want to read all the Newbery winners and because I felt like I should read it.) Now that I’ve read it, I am so glad she did! This work of juvenile historical fiction is exactly what historical fiction should be, in my opinion: based on historical fact, but detailed and imaginative enough to flesh out what might’ve happened.
Island of the Blue Dolphins is the story of twelve year old Karana, a Native American girl who lives on a small island off the coast of California in the 1800s with her people. Shortly after the beginning of the story, a band of Aleut fishermen under the leadership of a Russian named Captain Orlov land on their island to hunt sea otters. Captain Orlov strikes a deal with Karana’s father, the head of their tribe, to pay for the otters they kill. However, the hunters make moves to leave before completely fulfilling their end of the bargain, and the result is an altercation that leaves twenty-seven of the forty-two Island men dead, including Karana’s father. The Aleuts leave, and the surviving Islanders continue to live on the island, with the women taking over many of the jobs traditionally done by the men. The tribe is deep in mourning, though, so Kimki, the new chief of the tribe, decides to sail east to a land he had visited as a child and make a home for the Islanders. When a ship finally comes to rescue them to take them back to be with Kimki, it looks like this story will take a very interesting turn, with Karana and her people encountering a more “modern” civilization. However, this is not to be, for Karana’s younger brother gets left behind, and Karana jumps ship in order to rescue him. What follows, then, is a young woman’s lifetime of living alone (her brother meets an early demise) on an island: the friends she makes among the animals, how she survives (a tidal wave, an earthquake, loneliness)—a picture of life with no modern conveniences, in an amazing but desolate place.
This is a book that I would not hesitate to hand over to my young daughters, ages nine and seven, and I expect that they would enjoy it greatly. However, it’s a book that also raises questions that are interesting enough for even an adult to contemplate. For example, Karana is very hesitant to make her own weapons because this had been forbidden by their tribal beliefs. This struggle over shrugging off expectations comes up several times early in the story. Another element of the story that I found particularly fascinating is just the descriptions of life on a small island in the Pacific Ocean: the plants, the animals, and how a human being survives dependent on these for food. O’Dell describes the male sea elephants’ fight and Karana’s hunting of the devilfish (the octopus) masterfully. This story reminds me so much of other survivalist/adventure stories I’ve read: My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George, The Cay by Theodore Taylor, and the Gary Paulsen stories.
Perhaps the most interesting this to me of all about this story is what I learned about a week before I started reading it. I was cruising around on Facebook when I noticed that one of the homeschooling websites I subscribe to via Facebook had posted a link to this article from the LA Times from October 2012. It seems that archaeologists believe they have found the cave of the Lone Woman of San Nicolas, the real woman who inspired Scott O’Dell’s wonderful story. Amazing! This is why historical fiction is perhaps my favorite genre of all.
Many thanks to Carrie for the push to read Island of the Blue Dolphins! I hope you all enjoyed it as much as I did!
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