Study Guide

Island of the Blue Dolphins Memory and the Past

By Scott O'Dell

Memory and the Past

I remember the day the Aleut ship came to our island. (1.1)

The novel begins with a memory – Karana is thinking back and narrating her story after everything has already happened . Why is it important that memory is the first idea introduced in the book?

But this was not the real reason why autumn and winter were unpeaceful in Ghalas-at. Those who had died at Coral Cove were still among us. Everywhere we went on the island or on the sea, whether we were fishing or eating or sitting by the fires at night, they were with us. We all remembered someone and I remembered my father, so tall and strong and kind. (5.11)

Karana is haunted by the ghosts of those who were killed. How does her community deal with this?

The huts looked like ghosts in the cold light. As we neared them I heard a strange sound like that of running feet. I thought that it was a sound made by the wind, but when we came closer I saw dozens of wild dogs scurrying around through the huts. They ran from us, snarling. (8.2)

The wild dog pack forms when the owners die from the massacre. How do wild dogs become a symbol for a past that hasn't yet ended? What is Karana's relationship to the dog pack?

Yet I do remember the day that I decided I would never live in the village again. (9.1)

Why does Karana burn down the village? Why is it full of ghosts for her?

Yet I cannot say that I was really afraid as I stood there on the shore. I knew that my ancestors had crossed the sea in their canoes, coming from that place which lay beyond. Kimki too had crossed the sea. I was not nearly so skilled with a canoe as these men, but I must say that whatever might befall me on the endless waters did not trouble me. It meant far less than the thought of staying on the island alone, without a home or companions, pursued by wild dogs, where everything reminded me of those who were dead and those who had gone away. (10.9)

The distant past gives Karana the strength to take the journey across the sea. However, it's the <em>recent</em> past that pushes her to go on the trip.

There was a legend among our people that the island had once been covered with tall trees. This was a long time ago, at the beginning of the world when Tumaiyowit and Mukat ruled. The two gods quarreled about many things. Tumaiyowit wished people to die. Mukat did not. Tumaiyowit angrily went down, down to another world under this world, taking his belongings with him, so people die because he did. (12.8)

What's the significance of the island's legendary gods? What do they symbolize?

A long time before this my ancestors had used the cave, why I do not know, and along the walls on each side they had cut figures in stone. There were figures of pelicans floating in the water and flying, of dolphins, whales, seal elephants, gulls, ravens, dogs, and foxes. Near the opening of the cave they had also cut two deep basins in the stone, which I decided to use for storing water since they held much more than the baskets. (14.16)

The past is not painful here.  Instead, the work of her ancestors helps Karana. She uses their cave as a safe escape.

I turned the canoe around and started back toward the opening. Above it, on a deep ledge that ran from one side of the room to the other, my gaze fell upon a row of strange figures. There must have been two dozen of them standing against the black wall. They were as tall as I, with long arms and legs and short bodies made of reeds and clothes in gull feathers. Each one had eyes fashioned of round or oblong disks of abalone shell, but the rest of their faces were blank. The eyes glittered down at me, moved as the light on the water moved and was reflected upon them. They were more alive than the eyes of those who live. (20.11)

Karana stumbles upon figures of her ancestors – and a skeleton in the middle of them. What does she mean when she says they were "more alive" than living people? Why is she later afraid to be in the cave? How does this connect to the theme of the past in the book?

I often thought of Tutok, but on these days especially I would look off into the north and wish that she were here to see me. I could hear her talking in her strange language and I would make up things to say to her and things for her to say to me. (23.18)

What does Karana miss about Tutok?

We had many happy times that summer, fishing and going to Tall Rock in our canoe, but more and more now I thought of Tutok and my sister Ulape. Sometimes I would hear their voices in the wind and often, when I was on the sea, in the waves that lapped softly against the canoe. (26.13)

How does Rontu-Aru become a replacement for Rontu? Is he the living past? Karana remembers her sister, and Tutok and their friendship. What's significant about that?

I came to the mound where my ancestors had sometimes camped in the summer. I thought of them and of the happy times spent in my house on the headland, of my canoe lying unfinished beside the trail. I thought of many things, but stronger was the wish to be where people lived, to hear their voices and their laughter. (28.19)

For Karana, her loneliness gets the best of her. She wants to leave the island to be with people. The pull of the present is greater than that of the past.