Friday, May 11, 2007

Island of the Blue Dolphins

I know that I read Island of the Blue Dolphins (the 1961 Newbery winner) by Scott O'Dell as a child, but before re-reading it this week I remembered little about it except that I didn't like the story. Back then I thought it was disturbing and depressing, and my Scholastic Books paperback with the beautiful cover (I think it was this one, and I do remember loving the cover) sat undisturbed on the dusty end of the shelf with the other books that I didn't really like.

It's still not my favorite Newbery winner, but as an adult I was able to appreciate the beauty of O'Dell's descriptions of the landscape and the plants and animals living on and around a small Channel Island off the coast of California. I also appreciated the quiet strength and resilience that Karana shows, and her happiness in her surroundings:
"I felt as if I had been gone a long time as I stood there looking down from the high rock. I was happy to be home. Everything I saw - the otter playing in the kelp, the rings of foam around the rocks guarding the harbor, the gulls flying, the tides moving past the sandspit - filled me with happiness." (p. 69).

"With the young birds and the old ones, the white gull and Rontu, who was always trotting at my heels, the yard seemed a happy place. If only I had not remembered Tutok. If only I had not wondered about my sister Ulape, where she was, and if the marks she had drawn upon her cheeks had proved magical. If they had, she was now married to Kimko and was the mother of many children. She would have smiled to see all of mine, which were so different from the ones I always wished to have." (p. 153).
The second quote also highlights some of the things that disturbed me about this book as a child - stop reading right here if you don't want to hear spoilers!

This girl loses her entire family, including the little brother she stayed to save, and then spends most of the rest of her life alone on an island. The very matter-of-factness of the narrative bothered me. It was one thing to voluntarily spend a year away from your family, like Sam Gribley in My Side of the Mountain (a childhood favorite of mine which I did re-read several times), but to lose everyone? With no idea what happened to them, or if anyone would ever come back for you? I didn't like that at all.

As an adult, a little Googling didn't make this aspect of the book any less sad for me: The Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island describes the true story that O'Dell's book is based upon. A woman stayed on the island when her child couldn't be found when the Native community was being relocated to a mainland mission. Can you imagine anything more horrifying? Well, yes, to then have your child killed by wild dogs. To spend eighteen years alone except for dogs and birds, and then when you are finally rescued, to not find your people again. And then to die from a disease from which your people had no natural immunity, only seven weeks after finally re-joining humanity.

I hate to end on a such downer, especially concerning a book that is so loved by many people, but I'm afraid I that that I just couldn't find that "sense of hope" that I've been reading about on the Island of the Blue Dolphins. My childhood 'rating' still stands, but I will be interested to see how other readers feel about it.


Sandy D. said...

This book is also interesting in regards to Alicia's discussion of "Kids as Protagonists" in children's books here. Because Karana is (a very adult) 12 when the book starts, and around 30 when it ends. It's all very dream-like, though, and it doesn't really seem that she ages in the story.

Joanne (The Simple Wife) said...

Yes, I agree with you. It was sad when I read it as a child, and still sad as an adult.

I liked the comparison you made to Sam in My Side of the Mountain (one of my all-time favorite books as a child). The idea of choice makes all the difference in their loneliness. Sam could always go home, or down the mountain to visit the library when the quiet became overwhelming.

To be forgotten is a huge fear for many children, and being left behind for so long is horrifying.

The book is vividly written, and I'm still able to picture what I read years ago. I can appreciate many, many things about the book and the story, but it's not one I long to read again and again.

Framed said...

Thanks for the review. I think I will read it for the Saturday Review Challenge.

BookGal said...

I've always had mixed feelings about this book. As an adult,I really like the main character and value her strength and fortitude. Some of the descriptions are beautifully written. I don't think it holds the same appeal for children. They really can't get themselves into the world on the island. I've had kids read this one and Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. They all like Hatchet so much better!

Victoria Neely said...

I first read Island of the Blue Dolphins when I was 11 or 12 and found it dark, beautiful, and fascinating. It wasn't the sadness of the story that stayed with me all this time, but the descriptions of the island and how Karana adapts to a life of solitude--how she learns to make weapons, build a home for herself, tame animals. Those things made a deep impression on me.

Sandy D. said...

For an interesting review, check out this Jezebel write-up: