Friday, December 21, 2012

Island of the Blue Dolphins

This week, I read what has got to be the book most hated by 90s tweens--survivalist tale Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell.  For some reason, kids hate this book even though adults love it -- it won the Newbery medal and is universally assigned in elementary schools. I would like to be able to say that my taste for high literature started early and I recognized this book as that when I first read it in the fourth grade--but I didn't. I hated it too and this book actually marked the very first time I did not read an assigned book through to its end. Which made me feel both great shame and great thrill.

The book takes place on a small island off the coast of California called San Nicholas Island.  We meet Karana, the main character, a 24 year old woman, who is a part of a small tribe of indigenous people who live on the island. One day, a ship commanded by a sinister Russian guy and operated by a team of Aleuts (Alaskan indigenous people) come to the island to hunt otter. In exchange, they offer to give Karana's tribe some of their spoils.  Of course this doesn't happen and a battle breaks out--many of Karana's people are murdered, including her father who is the chief, and most of the men. The tribe struggles to survive with so few members so the new chief goes to sea to find help. Help comes in the form of a ship filled with white men who are going to take the remaining tribespeople to a different place where they will presumably thrive. Karana gets on the ship okay and the ship starts off, but then she sees her little brother, Ramo, has been accidentally left on the island.  She dives off the ship and into the water to meet her brother on the shore. They watch the ship sail away, which would have made me profoundly pissed at my brother, but Karana takes it in stride. However, within a few days, Ramo is killed by a pack of nasty wild dogs that live on the island i.e. he was eaten by them (which shocked me), leaving Karana utterly alone on the small island.

The rest of the book deals with Karana's trials and tribulations coming to terms with her situation, battling the elements, the animals and creating a home for herself--like most survivalist tales.  Some highlights include taming the leader of the wild dog pack to be her pet, building a lovely home for herself using whale ribs to serve as a protective fence, taming some birds to serve as secondary pets, and briefly striking up a secret friendship with the girlfriend of one of the evil Aleuts who returned a year later for more otter.  In the end, after several years living alone on the Island of the Blue Dolphins, a ship comes to take her away to civilization. 

This was all based on the true story of Juana Maria, a woman who was similarly left behind on San Nicholas Island in 1835 and survived on her own for nineteen years!  Miss Juana Maria was recently in the news because some archaelogists went to San Nicholas Island and located the cave that she mostly lived in.  This LA Times article (thanks to Emily for telling me about it) is actually really interesting and provides some good background info about this poor woman, including the fact that seven weeks after she finally made it to civilization, she died of dysentery apparently because she was stuffing herself with all the good mainland people food...which her stomach was not prepared to handle after decades of seal meat and fish. How terrible is that?

So why do kids hate this book?  Here are some of my theories:
  1. Karana is 24.  To a 10 year old, she might as well be 54. When you live a life where you mostly think in single digit numbers, being 24 is unimaginable and difficult to relate to.
  2. Karana's narration is very formal.  Maybe because she was supposed to be translated from her native tongue to English, Karana's narrative style is very formal.  It's not at all told in kid-friendly language and I think kids find it boring as a result.
  3. Speaking of boring, a lot of this book of boring. There is a lot of action in the beginning of the book--the arrival of a strange ship, the tension between the natives and the visitors, a full blown battle, death, struggle, rescue, jumping from a friggin ship and then the brutal death of Karana's brother. That all happens in the first third of the book and in the last two-thirds, the action significantly slows down when Karana is left by herself. The beginning of the book promised too much action and as a result, the rest seems super slow in comparison--even though it is the most important part of the novel. 
  4. There is no dialogue. I realize this is not really anyone's fault, and it is just part of the story that this woman left behind doesn't have doesn't anybody to talk to. But if Tom Hanks could have conversations with Wilson the ball, then I feel like Karana could have had an inanimate pal she could converse with to help move along the a rock or a seal skull.
  5. It's really depressing. Seriously being forced to live all by herself for years--that is horrifyingly sad. And there is little pay off at the end because the book ends pretty abruptly and doesn't reveal any of the happy parts of her rescue (although I guess it was better that Scott O'Dell left out the even more horrific fact about her rescue-related death)
So how did I feel about this book as an adult?  Well, first of all, I made it through the entire thing, which is a good sign. I would say that I liked the book and that I felt more sympathy for Karana because we are more similar in age, and I kept thinking about what I would do if I were in her position. But I still thought the book was pretty slow and crazy depressing.

Okay, now we have to take the tally on how Karana would do against the other tween book survivalists in a Hunger Games-style battle to the death. As previously discussed, the Boxcar Children would all be eviscerated before they even reached the cornucopia (and therefore not get any billing in the movie), Brian Robeson from Hatchet would last longer, but I think ultimately, either Julie of the Wolves or Karana would get him or he would eat some poisonous berries by accident and cripple himself. Now both Karana and Julie of the Wolves are tough chicas...Julie has murdered things with antlers and her bare hands and seems more ruthless--I mean she chose to stay in the wild when offered an alternative.  But on the other hand, Karana outdoes Julie in that she makes the king of the wolf pack her pet, while Julie only makes the king of the wolf pack her friend...I think this whole thing will really depend on who will get the wolves on their side,which might be Karana. Ah, but who am I kidding, Julie of the Wolves is a straight bad ass and would take all of these kids.


  1. I never knew kids hated this book. It was one of the books read aloud during my 4th grade year and I hated it too! lol!

  2. Oh gosh, I LOVED this book as a kid. What does that say about me? But I didn't remember the horrific stuff--I always remember how she makes things that help her survive. It's one of those foundational books for me. Maybe I just bonded with Karana--for some reason, she sparked my imagination.