Since I love both historical fiction and children’s books, I recently challenged myself to read all the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction winning books. But, to start things off, I read O’Dell’s first children’s book, and possibly the one he’s most known for, Island of the Blue Dolphins.
O’Dell had written non-fiction, short stories, and novels for adults. But once Island of the Blue Dolphins was published in 1960 and then received the Newbery Award, one of the most distinguished awards for children’s literature, he continued to write more historical fiction for children and earned the Newbery three more times.
At the beginning of Island of the Blue Dolphins, Karana is 12 and lives in a village on a small island. A ship full of Aleuts, captained by a white man, comes to the island to hunt sea otters. The captain makes a deal with Karana’s father so the tribe can share in the results of the hunting. But the captain and the Aleuts double-cross the villagers. In the resulting battle most of the tribe’s men are killed. The hunters leave, and the villagers survive for months on their own. However, their elderly leader knows they need help, so he takes a canoe to the land far to the east. Eventually a ship comes for the villagers, but the weather is bad and the ship only stays long enough to load the villagers and what they can carry. In the hurry and confusion, Karana sees her little brother is left alone on the island. She jumps overboard and swims back to her brother. But the ship sails on and doesn’t return.
Not only is the book set in a historical time-period, but O’Dell based the story on a real woman’s experience.
There really was a woman who lived alone on San Nicolas Island, off the coast of Southern California, for 18 years (1835-1853). People on the mainland knew about her, though, and a priest at the Santa Barbara Mission asked Capt. George Nidever to watch for her when he was otter hunting at San Nicolas. Nidever did find her and brought her back to Santa Barbara. He thought she was about 50 years old, but apparently they could communicate only through sign language. Unfortunately, the woman lived less than two months after coming to the mainland, and she was buried at the Santa Barbara Mission.
San Nicolas is now a base of the U.S. Navy, and archeologists have worked on the island for years. But recently, some archeologists found a cave where the woman may have lived or used for storage. Here’s a link to the Los Angeles Times article about that potential find: “‘Island of the Blue Dolphins’ woman’s cave believed found”.
O’Dell used the facts for inspiration, but he changed things for the sake of the story.
For example, Karana probably wasn’t on the island as long as the actual woman was, and Karana was much younger than the woman. This last detail made Karana’s story work for kids. However, according to the Scott O’Dell website, O’Dell didn’t realize his story would appeal to kids until children’s author and friend, Maud Lovelace, admired the manuscript.
And although he fictionalized the story, O’Dell was respectful of both the woman and her culture.
When I read Island of the Blue Dolphin as a kid, I don’t think I focused on the history aspect. In fact, I only found out it was based on an actual person within the past few months. I thought it was a story about a girl who figured out how to use what she had to survive on her own. That seemed to be a theme in many of my favorite childhood books.
Finally, there is very little dialogue in the book, yet it works.
Other than her pets, Karana is alone for much of the book, so there are many pages with no dialogue. Perhaps that was more common in books 50 years ago, but now that would make for a hard-sell. The current trend for novels (and not just kids’ novels) is lots of action and a fast pace. But, Island of the Blue Dolphins is full of action. Karana battles the elements, fights wild dogs, tries to sail in a leaking canoe, hunts a devilfish, and makes a few friends (one human and many non-human). These may not be big-explosion-type actions, but they are actions that have huge stakes for Karana.
O’Dell used the first person point of view, too. So, although Karana may not be talking to others a lot, it feels like she is talking directly to me, the reader.
The next book I read for the challenge will be Chickadee by Louise Erdrich, 2013 winner. Join me, and we’ll talk about it April 29.
Have you read Island of the Blue Dolphins? What did you learn from it?