Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Island of the Blue Dolphins

O'Dell, Scott. 1960. Island of the Blue Dolphins.

If as a child I read Island of the Blue Dolphins, I must have blocked it from my memory. And there's a good reason for that: 1 dead father +1 dead brother +1 dead dog + countless years spent alone on an island trying to survive the elements and cope with the loneliness = 1 book I'd just as soon live without. Sometimes I try to fool myself into thinking that I'm all introspective, that I am happy with my alone time. It doesn't work for long. I need people. Not 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. But given enough "alone" time, I start to go crazy.

Island of the Blue Dolphins is about a girl, Karana, and her slightly unusual coming-of-age story. It is based on a true story. Which *should* logically make the dead father, the dead brother, the dead dog, etc. easier to accept because it is so authentic. The author's note says, "The girl Robinson Crusoe whose story I have attempted to re-create actually lived alone upon this island from 1835 to 1853, and is known to history as The Lost Woman of San Nicolas." I cannot imagine, can't fathom, the emotional, mental, and physical strain of such loneliness. To not only have to have the strength and courage and common sense to survive day after day and season after season and year after year, but to have to live with everything psychologically speaking.

The novel begins with the arrival of the Aleuts. Karana's tribe welcome halfheartedly these strangers onto their shores. These hunters are here to kill sea otters. They agree to pay for this privilege; however, there is some distrust. Her family, her community, are unsure about the trustworthiness of these men, these strangers. But what can they do? If they don't allow them to hunt, won't that be challenging them and provoking a war? If they do allow them to hunt, and they don't get what has been promised, that is a challenge or threat of war as well. But there is a small chance that they might actually be honorable. I don't know if there is a right or wrong way to go about it. What is, is.

As you might have guessed, these men are not honorable. And the community is practically slaughtered. By the time these strangers leave, the tribe is down to fifteen men--most of them old men or young boys. There are only a handful of men physically and mentally capable of leadership. Karana's father, the chief, is one of the men that died. She does witness it--from a distance I believe.

The people then decide, over the next few years or seasons, that the island has too many bad memories. That they should try to move to another island. One man goes off in search of a new home, and he later sends a ship back for the rest of the tribe.

The problem? Karana's brother misses the boat. He went back home to get his spear despite Karana having told him NOT to go because there wasn't enough time. She's safely on the boat, but her brother isn't. As they're leaving, she realizes that he is not there. She even, I believe, sees him on the shore. She jumps into the sea and swims home. The tragedy of it all? Within a few days--maybe even that same day--her brother is dead--mauled by a pack of wild dogs. So her brave attempt to be a good big sister is all in vain. Now she's alone, alone, alone.

Perhaps some people love the Robinson Crusoe of it all. I'm not one of them. I didn't like Robinson Crusoe in school--hated it in fact. And this doesn't really read like Swiss Family Robinson. For one thing, it's realistic. But another thing, it's the story of one person's isolation. Maybe the book doesn't focus on the alone-ness of it. But as a reader, it was something I couldn't escape. How do you keep your sanity when you are all alone for years and years?


She is eventually rescued. But she is never reunited with her community, her tribe. What is perhaps sadder is that she could only communicate with others in signs. No one understood her language, and she couldn't understand other languages. So even supposedly-rescued, she remains isolated in a way. I can't imagine being unable to communicate fully and freely. To be alone in your own little world. There is something so troubling about this whole mess. People need to be heard, be understood. They need to connect.

I think there are many many people who love this book. I don't know that I can grasp the why of that love. But it's there just the same. I am not one of them. This book has a haunting sadness, a heartbreaking melancholy that I just DON'T want to experience again.

© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews


Debi said...

You're not alone! I just didn't fall in love with this book either. I think I might have enjoyed it if I'd read it as a kid, but I didn't so I'll never know for sure. But I read it last year, and just wasn't all that impressed. Didn't hate it, but that's about as far as it goes.

Jeane said...

I liked this book when I read it as a child, but then I've always been a loner and daydreamed as a kid of how I would survive in the wild on my own. I did think the epilogue was so sad, that she could not communicate with anyone or ever see her people again. After having gone through so much.

Jill said...

I'm impressed that you had the fortitude to face this one again. I read it as a child and identified so strongly with the heroine that I was very distraught with her story. Plus dead dogs always make me cry. It's a very well-done book, but this reader won't be picking it up again any time soon.

Anonymous said...

I read this in grade school and LOVED it. I revisted it not long ago and can't remember what I liked about it??????

Framed said...

It really is kind of a sad, lonely book, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

This book is nothing I would probably want to read,but I did.It's not the best,but I don't hate it.I had to read it in class and almost cried.It's very sad and lonely.

Anonymous said...

my 11 year old son is being forced to read this in class and seems disturbed by it. he is refusing to read it. the teacher has asked me to read it with him....i cant imagine why this would be required reading. i was ready to trash it by the 2nd chapter.

Anonymous said...

I read this book as a child and loved it. I revisited it for a college course and I still enjoyed it. I agree that it is a sad book and doesn't have a super happy ending. But educationally speaking, this book teaches that there are challenges in life and that we can grow from these challenges. It teaches survival and coping and while I might not require students to read it, I would encourage my students to give it a try.