Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Reading: Island of the Blue Dolphins

Courtesy of www.amazon.com
Imagine living on an island by yourself where the only voices you hear for years are those of the wind and ocean waves.  This is the life of twelve-year-old Karana in Island of the Blue Dolphins.  Published in 1960 by Scott O’Dell, this Newbery Honor book that has been in publication for the last five decades is based on a true event. It follows twelve-year old Karana and her independent, isolated life on the Island of the Blue Dolphins and illustrates the importance of connectedness between people with animals and people with people.

Karana is a member of a Native-American tribe on the Island of the Blue Dolphins when the Aleut ship arrives to hunt otters.  After a battle ensues between her tribe and the Aleuts, leaving many of her tribe weakened or dead, they decide to travel in pursuit of a new, safe place to make their inhabitance.  When the ship begins to depart, Karana notices her younger brother running along the cliffs on the island after having gone back for his spear.  She bravely jumps into the ocean to save her little brother, and the two are left alone on the island.  Soon, he gets killed by a pack of wild dogs, and Karana seeks to kill the lead dog.  Instead, she ends up forming a close friendship with the dog and names him Rontu. 

The absence of people in this novel makes for an absence of dialogue.  Normally, I love reading dialogue and am displeased when I read a book without it.  However, Karana misses having conversations with people just as much as I miss reading about them!  This is evident when she is discovered by two peaceful men at the end of the novel; she says, “Though his words sounded the same as before and meant nothing to me, they now seemed sweet.  They were the sound of a human voice.  There is no sound like this in all the world” (171).  

Even though Karana misses her tribe and longs for interaction, the animals that she befriends still fill this absence in her heart.  After bringing Rontu into her home, she admits that she never realized how lonely she was before this friendship.  Later, she captures two birds and clips their wings so that they cannot fly away but must remain her “friends” instead.  While I do find the practice of clipping wings cruel, I realize that this was done intentionally to show how Karana yearned to make connections with others.  When the author uses the word “friends” in this situation, it reminds me that Karana is young and hopeful and still innocent.  While adults might look at birds to be, well, birds, Karana looks at them to be friends.  This is very child-like, and even though Karana is forced to mature and to be independent, her young tendencies will help young readers to relate to her.

While on the island, Karana also saves the live of an injured sea otter.  Afterwards, she pledges never to hurt another animal again.  “Animals and birds ate like people, too, though they do not talk the same or do the same things,” she says.  “Without them, the earth would be an unhappy place” (149).

I value this message that the author is trying to convey, especially since Karana doesn’t initially feel this way.  She is from a tribe that did hunt animals and even used animal skins to create clothing and jewelry not so long ago.  But when she realizes how much companionship the animals do provide her, she decides to change for the sake of what she feels is right!  This is just one of the reasons Karana is a role model.  Her intelligence (so many survival tactics) and loyalty (she did jump ship for her brother’s sake, after all) also make Karana a literary role model for young readers.

Island of Blue Dolphins is also an interesting read because it is based on a true account that the author details in his author’s note.  The island is based on San Nicolas island off the coast of Santa Barbara, and Karana is a fictionalized name for The Lost Woman of San Nicolas.  The woman lived on the island by herself from 1835 to 1853.  When she was discovered on the island, there was a dog by her side, and nobody could communicate with her since she was the last of her tribe to have survived.  She was taken to Santa Barbara and reported to be very friendly; however, she soon died of illness. Artifacts of the woman and island are housed in the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles. 

I am so perplexed that this novel is based on a real account and have so many questions!  Why was she left behind on the island in the first place?  Did she voluntarily leave the island with the men, or were they plotting to have her removed to use the island for their own benefit?  What happened to the rest of her tribe?  And what was her real name?  Does the island still exist today, or was it washed back into the sea?  If it does still exist, is it being used for anything?  Young readers of this book will have many questions themselves, and research can be taken to try to answer them!  After reading this book, there is certainly research that I plan to do!  (In fact, I have already googled “the lost woman of san nicolas’ cormorant skirt,” which was reportedly sent to a museum in Rome.) 

Although much remains unknown about The Lost Woman of San Nicolas, Scott O’Dell’s novel is a tribute to the last member of the tribe.  To check it out for yourself, visit your local library.  And for more information about the real San Nicolas Island, visit this website!

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