Book review

Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell (1960)

A true story about a young American Indian girl left behind by her people when they move from their remote island home to the mainland. This subdued book is about how she survives alone for years, but of all her survival skills, the most important thing she learns is how to cope with loneliness.

When I say it is true, I mean the bare bones of the story are true. For when The Lost Woman of San Nicolas, as she became known, was finally rescued after eighteen years, she could speak only in sign language. All her own people had long since disappeared. This story, then, written as though she is telling us in her own words, owes a lot to the writer's imagination. There is an Author's Note at the back of the book to tell you the true facts about this story.

Karana's tribe number more than forty when this story begins, and they live quite comfortably on a small island. They forage for their food, mainly from the sea, but also roots and seeds from the land. Occasionally they are visited by hunters from the far north, (the Aleutian Islands of Alaska), who come to camp on their island for a few weeks and hunt the sea otter for their pelts. This is where the disaster begins, for the hunters deal unfairly with the islanders and in the ensuing battle most of the menfolk of the tribe are wiped out. After that there really are not enough people left to live successfully on the island, to share the work load, and so one man is sent to fetch help. Eventually, a ship comes to take everyone away to the mainland.

Things would have gone differently if only Karana's young brother, Ramo, had not forgotten his fishing spear and gone back to fetch it. The rest of the tribe, including Karana, board the ship in bad weather and rising seas. In an astonishing act of bravery, when Karana looks back to the cliff to see Ramo left behind, she jumps overboard and swims back to him. Thus, there are two left behind when the ship sails.

Now, although they are alone, these two children are at home, and they are perfectly well able to feed themselves. They simply continue foraging, mainly for abalone fish. At first, of course, they expect the ship to come back to pick them up, and every day they look out for it on the horizon.

It may be home, but it is dangerous. The island is roamed by a pack of wild dogs, there are poisonous and paralyzing fish in the sea, and a huge herd of sea elephants on the shore. Ramo does not survive for long, and after that Karana is alone with the empty, whispering huts of her village.

There is no denying, this is a very sad story. I think you will find Karana's resourcefulness fascinating, and her loneliness excruciating. Was her life wasted? See what you think.

What can I read next?

If you enjoy this book you may like to know that Scott O'Dell wrote another book, not exactly a sequel but related to The Island of the Blue Dolphins. The book is set a generation later when Zia, a young Indian girl, journeys to the Island of the Blue Dolphins to search for her aunt Karana who she believes to be living there. The book is called:

  • Zia

If you are really interested in how to survive on a desert island, you might be interested to read this one by James Vance Marshall:

Or this magnificent epic by Peter Dickinson:

For a different kind of real-life loneliness, you could look at this one by Adeline Yen Mah:

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