Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Re-reading a Childhood Favorite: Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell

Recently, due to a class on Adolescent's Literature, I had the opportunity to reread one of my favorite books from my childhood. At first I was hesitant, as I thought that perhaps I would not enjoy the book as I once did, or that my fond memories of it would be dashed. I got over my concerns and reread Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell. This short novel for 8-12 year olds won the Newberry Award in 1961. It has also been named one of the Top Ten Young Adult Books of the Past 200 Years, which is quite a statement, as there are many wonderful YA books available.
This novel follows Karana as she builds a new life for herself after she is left behind when her entire tribe leaves their island. This is loosely based on the actual events of a Native American woman who lived alone on an island off the California coast for 18 years. Karana not only survives, but thrives, during her time alone. When her tribe leaves the island, Karana realizes her brother is not on the ship, and she jumps overboard to join him back on their island. He dies shortly after, and she is alone. She expects that someone will return for her, but they never do. (In reality, the entire tribe was decimated by disease and were completely wiped out.) Karana has many adventures on the island, including taming and befriending a wild dog, avoiding sea otter hunters, and sewing a skirt from cormorant feathers. She remains on the island completely alone for eighteen years. In the end, Karana is discovered and “saved” from her island. The irony is that her “rescuers” end up inadvertantly causing her death 7 weeks after bringing her to the mainland, due to disease and dietary issues. The story of Karana allows youngsters to find power within themselves and to see themselves as individuals who are capable of making independent decisions that matter.

Twenty years have passed since I first read Island of the Blue Dolphins, but the themes of family, isolation and identity still resonate with me. I still love the book, and I am glad I chose it for my re-read. I got to re-experience my childhood but I also got to enjoy the book from a new perspective. My husband is an archaeologist and I couldn’t help but notice all the details that are historically accurate based on artifact evidence found from this culture. It was interesting to see how O’Dell interwove historical data with storytelling to create this wonderful story which seems so lifelike. I had forgotten that the book is based (however loosely) on the true story of a Native American woman who lived alone on this island. As an adult, I have access to the internet (which was not available in the mid-80s) and I looked up (on Wikipedia) information about the actual island and the woman who lived there. I found it heart-wrenching to discover the island is now used as a weapons testing site for the US Navy, and that her cormorant skirt (which was real) was given to the Vatican and they lost it. I’m glad I did not know these things when I was younger. The themes of adventure that resonated with me as a child changed into themes of isolation and identity as I re-read. I could feel the loneliness of the main character, as a person alone on an island, but also the more poignant loneliness of being the last of her family, her tribe, her culture. I think that one of the reasons I enjoyed this book so much as a child was because I identified with that sense of being alone in the world. I think all kids have this feeling to some extent, and that is probably why they relate to this book. I also love that Scott O’Dell chooses to write about female protagonists. This is one of the few books when I was young that had a realistic, strong female rather than a Pollyanna-type main character. I am glad I got the chance to revisit this book and it has inspired me to reread some of my other favorites from when I was young to see how my experience with them will change and develop.

Have you read any books from your past lately? If so, which ones? What is your reaction to them now?

If you have not, which one would you choose? What did it mean to you when you were a child?

I would love to hear your thoughts!


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