The Island of the Blue Dolphins is a Newbery Medal winning historical fiction middle-grade novel. Our story describes the journey of Karana who is accidentally stranded on an island all alone for 18 years. We watch Karana grow, adapt, and change in a captivating survival novel.
O‘Dell based The Island of the Blue Dolphins on the true story of Juana Maria. This Nicoleno tribe (CA) native was left alone for 18 years on San Nicolas island between 1835 and 1853. She was the last surviving member of her tribe when she was discovered alone on one of the channel islands 60 miles off the Los Angeles coast. Her story, originally a blip in history with little renown, caught the eye of Scott O’Dell. His immaculate research was the start of this Newbery Award Winner.
For the first time, I began to wonder if the ship would ever return. I wondered about this as I pried the shells off the rocks, and I would stop and look fearfully at the empty sea that stretched away further than my eyes could reach.
Legend has it that a party of Alaskan otter hunters arrived at the island and massacred most of the Nicoleno tribe after a tribe member was accused of murdering one of the Alaskan hunters. This story reached the Santa Barbara Mission who decided to sponsor a rescue mission. When the rescuer’s arrived in November 1835, a storm set in and they had to leave without Juana Maria or risk everyone perishing. Juana Maria’s existence was slowly becoming legend. The Mission sent people to locate her, but they never succeeded.
In autumn 1853, a fur trader’s crew finally found evidence of someone living on the island. Upon exploration they discovered Juana Maria. She was living in a hut constructed with whale bones and was wearing a skirt made of cormorant feathers. They returned her to the mainland where she only survived another seven weeks, overdosing on the nutrients she had lacked for so many years.
With this history explored, The Island of the Blue Dolphins is a much stronger story than it would be alone. The truth behind O’Dell’s words reinforces the possibilities of survival and how challenging it can be not only to be alone in the world, but to break barriers established by centuries of religious and cultural establishment. You can also see the care O’Dell took to research his subject. In reviewing the history it’s easier to identify that this isn’t some made-up story during the era of children’s survival-themed books– this is a true piece of historical fiction.
Dolphins are a good omen. It made my happy to have them swimming around the canoe, and though my hands had begun to bleed from the chafing of the paddle, just watching them made me forget the pain. I was very lonely before they appeared, but not I felt that I had friends with me and did not feel the same.
The edition I read contained beautiful watercolor illustrations by Ted Lewin. These full-page glossy images helped better immerse me in Karana’s world. Without them, I certainly would have struggled to visualize her ethnicity and the island upon which she lived. It was the highlight of each chapter of the novel when I ran into these images. They helped immerse me much more into Karana’s plight.
To the intended age group, Karana is an addictive character. Abandoned on her own, she makes shelter, gathers food, creates tools and weapons (fighting against religious beliefs that women with weapons is bad luck), teaches herself to hunt, befriends wild animals to curb her loneliness, and struggles for survival– ultimately to see herself all the way to her freedom. She is an incredibly strong woman from a culture where women were not expected to have that sort of strength. She easily could have just rolled over and given up.
That said, I wasn’t always engaged in Karana’s story. Mostly, this is due to O’Dell’s pacing and writing style. I felt like it was a lot of “this happened, then this happened.” We had a lot of action in the beginning of the novel, only to watch Karana live out her days in the remainder of the pages. I wasn’t bored, but I was never aching to continue reading. As this book was part of a re-reading challenge, I think this is a major reason I stalled out on the challenge. I struggled to read this book in a timely fashion, always reaching for something else when it was time to read.
Regardless of my opinions, this is still a timeless classic. I strongly recommend it to all 10-14-year-olds. Particularly those who are interested in survival stories and strong female protagonists.