Karana is a female, environmentally-friendly version of great adventure heroes like Robinson Crusoe. She has some warlike tendencies of her culture (weapon-making, anyone?), but in the end, she's just not interested in hurting animals or people from other cultures. Over the course of the novel, we see Karana come to deeply respect the island environment around her. By the end of the book, she views the animals on the island not as prey or pelts, but as her friends. She also makes peace with the Aleuts through her friendship with Tutok, a young woman who comes with the hunters to the island later on in the novel. This is a pretty big deal since the Aleuts killed Karana's father.
Karana's worldview ends up being extremely different from the culture she came from and from the Aleutian hunters'. She comes to value forgiveness over revenge, mercy over justice, and peace over violence. Karana represents a new social order on the island, and a caring and respectful way of seeing outsiders, animals, and the natural environment.
One of the first things we should know about Karana is that she's the best big sister in the entire world. Ever. When her little brother Ramo gets left all alone on the island, Karana throws herself off the side of the ship to stay with her brother on the island.
This tells us a lot about Karana as a character: first, of course, that she's selfless. Karana is willing to sacrifice her own safety to be with her brother. Also, we can immediately see that Karana is caring and empathetic. She knows how her brother will feel if he's left all alone on the island, so she decides to go back for him – unlike Matasaip, whose face is "like stone" when she asks him to turn the ship around (7.27). Finally, we know that Karana is a forgiving person. When she swims back to the shore, she's not even angry with her little brother when she finally makes it there. As she tells us, the only thing that upset her was that her "beautiful yucca skirt" got ruined in the swim.
While at first we might think of Karana as kind, selfless, and empathetic (meaning, she feels the pain of others), these characteristics are put to test throughout the novel. When a pack of wild dogs kills Karana's little brother, she swears she'll get revenge. She tells us that she "vowed that someday I would go back and kill the wild dogs in the cave. I would kill them all" (8.50). This kind of violence seems a little out of character for Karana, right? In the end, Karana can't go through with her plan to kill the leader of the dog pack after all.
In Chapter 15, Karana finally tracks down the dog, sets his cave on fire, and then shoots an arrow into his chest. But she just can't bring herself to finish off the wounded dog. She explains, "Why I did not send the arrow I cannot say" (15.22). This moment is really the turning point of the novel, as we see Karana's true character. Instead of injuring the dog even more, she takes him back to her house and heals his wounds. She gives him a name, and becomes his friend. Rontu will be Karana's constant closest companion for much of the book. We begin to see how forgiveness is very powerful and can change people.
Because she's a girl, Karana has never been allowed to handle weapons or work outside of the home. In her culture, that stuff is for boys and men only. When she is alone on the island, though, she has to take up those chores since there aren't any men (or, really anyone) around to do them for her.
Karana crosses gender boundaries and challenges what her society has said is only for men or women. Though she worries about handling weapons and wonders if "the four winds blow in from the four directions of the world and smother me as I made my weapons," the winds certainly don't (9.26). Karana still makes those skirts and jewelry she loves, but she also hunts, fishes, and gathers food. She takes on the jobs of men and women, suggesting a change in the order of things on the island. Here, we see Karana trying to figure out who she is and what her role on the island will be.
Much like Dr. Doolittle, Karana becomes a friend not just to Rontu, but to all of the animals. She begins the novel with a little bit of an aggressive attitude with the natural world (well, mainly with the leader of the dog pack), but this changes over time as she becomes friends with the animals.
Karana has a lot of interactions with animals where she could use violence, but chooses not to. For example, when she goes to the sea elephants to collect a tusk in Chapter 13, she had a "good chance to send an arrow in the young bull" while he's fighting another sea elephant, but she doesn't shoot him, hoping instead that he might win (13.20). She doesn't interfere with the order of the natural world.
She also doesn't treat animals as trophies and learns that hurting them can hurt her too. When she hunts the devilfish in Chapter 19, for example, she walks away bruised and beaten:
Rontu had a gash on his nose from the giant's beak, and I had many cuts and bruises. I saw two more giant devilfish along the reef that summer, but I did not try to spear them. (19.39)
She can't even lift the devilfish's body from the shore, so she doesn't get to taste the sweet meat from her kill. In the end, the battle wasn't even worth it.
Later on, she acts as a healer to the wounded otter Mon-a-nee in Chapter 23. She then becomes friends with Mon-a-nee/Won-a-nee's children. Here she fully celebrates the life of animals instead of their death. Her attitude about animals and the natural world can be summed up by the statement that she makes at the end of Chapter 24:
After that summer, after being friends with Won-a-nee and her young, I never killed another otter. I had an otter cape for my shoulders, which I used until it wore out, but never again did I make a new one. Nor did I ever kill another cormorant for its beautiful feathers, though they have long thin necks and make ugly sounds when they talk to each other. Nor did I kill seals for their sinews, using instead kelp to bind the things that needed it. Nor did I kill another wild dog, nor did I try to spear another elephant.
Ulape would have laughed at me, and others would have laughed, too. Yet this is the way I felt about the animals who had become my friends and those who were not, but in time could be. If Ulape and my father had come back and laughed, and all the others had come back and laughed, still I would have felt the same way, for 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. (24.18)
Here, we see Karana really understanding her place in the natural order. She understands that she doesn't exist to control the animals, but to live alongside them.
Karana and Tutok
One of the last problems Karana must face is the Aleut hunter who killed her father. Can she ever be at peace with these men and their violent culture? We find out the answer to that question when Karana meets a young Aleutian girl named Tutok.
Karana's relationship with Tutok is completely different from her father's violent and bloody relationship with Captain Orlov. The friendship that develops between the two young girls represents a new way of thinking about other cultures based on communication and trust. Karana and Tutok develop this friendship in Chapters 20 to 22, where the two exchange gifts and, most importantly, language. Karana explains:
She touched the necklace, giving the word for it, and I gave mine. We pointed out other things – the spring, the cave, a gull flying, the sun and the sky, Rontu asleep – trading the names for them and laughing because they were so different. We sat there on the rock until the sun was in the west and played this game. Then Tutok rose and made a gesture of farewell. (22.10)
Here, the two girls attempt to understand each other through language and learning instead of violence and bloodshed. They teach each other the words of their own languages and try to communicate – and have fun doing so. It's after this time together that she tells Tutok her secret name: Karana (22.12).