It is fitting that the classic Newbery Award-winning 50th Anniversary edition of The Island of the Blue Dolphin by Scott O’Dell (1898-1989) has a forward written for it by Lois Lowry, who won the same award two times, in 1990 for The Giver and in 1994 for her brilliant novel, Number the Stars. The Island of the Blue Dolphin has been named as one of the top ten best children’s books written, and it’s a much-beloved historical novel that is also one of my favorites. The novel is based on a true story; the tale of how the Indian girl, Karana, survives alone on the Island of the Blue Dolphins and how she loves the beauty of the island and finds strength and serenity there, is as popular today as it ever has been.
How does Karana come to be living on an island all by herself? That part of her story is told at the beginning of the novel. She and her tribe live on a small island in the Pacific that looks like a big fish sunning itself in the sea. Around it blue dolphins swim, otters play, and sea birds fly across the blue skies and roost on the island. Her life, and the lives of the other villagers, is changed forever when a hunting party of Aleuts arrives on the island, brought there by a Russian captain. They ask the chief of the tribe permission to hunt otter there, in return for a share of whatever they kill.
The problem is that, when it comes time to leave, the Aleuts and the captain don’t want to pay the full amount they’d agreed upon. Fighting breaks out, and many of Karana’s tribespeople are killed before the hunting party finally leaves. They fear that one day, the Aleuts will come back to hunt again, and may kill the rest of the tribe. That’s why, when a ship comes to their shores offering to take them to another place to live, they agree to move.
However, after she boards the ship, Karana notices someone who is still on the shores of the island, her brother. She tries to get the ship to go back, but it doesn’t, so she leaps into the sea to swim back to the island and be with her brother, so he won’t be left there alone. This is one of the book’s many dramatic moments, and I thought it showed how much Karana loved her brother, that she was willing to sacrifice her chance at a new life for him.
There is a pack of wild dogs that roams the island, though, and one day, Karana hears her brother yelling at them. When she goes to help him, she is too late–the dogs have killed him. Karana is left all alone on the island. She has plans to eventually kill the wild dogs for what they’ve done, and she has hopes that a ship will one day come back to take her to rejoin the rest of her tribe, but in the meantime, she survives by foraging for food on the land and in the ocean. She sleeps on a high rock, where the dogs can’t get at her. She clothes herself in a skirt made from green cormorant feathers and an otter cape, and makes the best of her life there.
Scott O’Dell describes the island very poetically, and his account made Karana’s story come alive for me. Her efforts to survive alone, and her eventual friendship with one of the wild dogs, were some of the things I liked the most about this book. I thought it was amazing that she was able to survive there for the several years that she did, and after reading it, I can see why Scott O’Dell’s novel The Island of the Blue Dolphins is such a great work of children’s literature.
Besides The Island of the Blue Dolphins, Scott O’Dell received the Newbery Medal, three Newbery Honor Medals, and the Hans Christian Andersen Author Medal, the highest international recognition for a body of work by an author of books for young readers. His other books include The Road to Damietta, Sing Down the Moon, and The Black Pearl. If you enjoy reading tales of survival and island living, then this is the book for you!