Winner of the Newbery Medal in 1960, Scott O'Dell's classic Island of the Blue Dolphins is one of the most popular young adult novels of all time. With its dolphins, devilfish, fierce wild dogs, and ghostly villages, this book is an adventure story for all ages, not just young adults. Though O'Dell went on to write tons of other books for younger audiences, it's his haunting first novel for which he is best remembered.
Island of the Blue Dolphins tells the story of a Native American girl named Karana, a who lives on an island off the coast of Southern California and gets left behind when the people of her village ship off to the mainland. Bummer? Yeah, you might say that, especially since she doesn't get to have any Home Alone fun.
The novel is a piece of fiction, but the story is mainly based on the true story of the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island who, just like Karana, was abandoned on a remote island. The Lone Woman, also known as Juana Maria, was stranded there for eighteen years (from 1835-1853), until a sea captain named Nidever found her. (That's a lot of alone time.) The Lone Woman is buried near the Santa Barbara Mission in Southern California.
O'Dell's book imagines what the Lone Woman’s experience on the island may have been like. His heroine, Karana, faces many exciting dangers on the island: she battles fierce animal enemies, faces off with Russian hunters, and explores old, hidden caves.
While O'Dell found inspiration in the Lone Woman's story, he also drew from his own childhood experiences living in Southern California. He says that much of the novel "came from the memory of my years at San Pedro and Dead Man's Island, when, with other boys my age, I voyaged out on summer mornings in search of adventure" (source).
This novel has strong themes of peace and protecting the environment, as well as being a story of survival. Scott O'Dell has said, "Island of the Blue Dolphins began in anger, anger at the hunters who invade the mountains where I live and who slaughter everything that creeps or walks or flies" (source). We can see O'Dell's anger in the way he describes the violence of the Aleutian hunters against the indigenous (native) people of the island. They mercilessly slaughter the otters there, only to move on to kill many of the people – including Karana's father. The rest of the novel is dedicated to describing the terrible consequences of the Aleutian hunters' violence.
In comparison, Karana, is an eco-friendly, pro-environment, peace-loving kind of gal. Or at least, that's how she ends up. Over the course of the novel, Karana makes friends with many of the island's animals – even ones who she thought would be her enemies. Her positive relationship with the animals on the island inspires her to become strongly against violence by the end of the novel. She also tries to understand the Aleutian people (who killed her father) by making friends with a young Aleutian girl named Tutok. Talk about forgiveness! The book's environmentally responsible and culturally sensitive message apply to the lives of many readers today.
Island of the Blue Dolphins will probably remind you of other island adventure novels – like Daniel Defoe's 18th-century classic Robinson Crusoe or Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island or even H.G. Wells's chilling The Island of Dr. Moreau. These books are all known as Robinsonades – a genre dedicated to desert island stories (like Robinson Crusoe, get it?)
The Robinsonade is a hugely popular genre. We mean, come on – who doesn't like a good desert island story? (You did watch Lost, didn't you?) Island of the Blue Dolphins fits perfectly into this genre – O'Dell even calls his main character as a "girl Robinson Crusoe" (Author's Note.4).
But wait. Is that why you should care? Because Island of the Blue Dolphins is like every other desert island story?
Well, no. Not exactly. You should care about this book because it's not like every other desert island story.
O'Dell's Karana is different than your typical hero of the Robinsonade. She's definitely not your average Robinson Crusoe, that's for sure. Why? Well, for starters, she's a girl (now there's something), and she's also a native of the deserted island. That's right, this is not the story of some white male from Europe coming to take over the land. This is a story about a girl from the island – she's a Native American, not some shipwrecked English dude.
Karana also looks at the world very differently than most other Robinsonade heroes. Unlike, say, Robinson Crusoe she feels at home on her island – and she comes to love the friends and animals around her there too. Instead of killing the animals, she vows never to hurt them again. She tells us, "Animals and birds are like people, too, though they do not talk the same or do the same things. Without them the earth would be an unhappy place" (24.19).
Karana also tries her best to understand other cultures, even making friends with a young Aleut woman. This is a pretty big deal since the Aleuts killed Karana's father. (Compare this to Robinson Crusoe's kind of weird relationship with his man Friday.)
We might think of Karana, then, as more in line with a heroine like Pai in Whale Rider. She's a very different kind of adventure hero than we're used to seeing. She offers a different version of the classic desert island survival tale. Pretty cool.