A Lone Girl's Isolation

What I remember most about reading The Island of the Blue Dolphins at 11 years old was the heroine’s resilience against her unimaginable isolation. 

Scott O’Dell’s best-selling novel was inspired by the story of the last-known member of the Nicoleño tribe, the “Lone Woman of San Nicolas." She inhabited an island off the coast of California alone, from 1835 to 1853, after the rest of her dwindling tribe was relocated to San Pedro Bay.

 Teagan reading the 50th Anniversary Edition of the book.

Teagan reading the 50th Anniversary Edition of the book.

We do not know the real name of the famous Nicoleño woman. O’Dell named his lone girl Karana, and invented most of the details about her past and solitary life. After all, no one could speak the real-life woman’s language, nor understand her well, once she was found. 

“I liked the way Karana looked at the world,” says Teagan. “She described things she saw by using [cues] from nature. Because she lived by herself on an island, the animals became her family. By spending a lot of time with Rontu [the wild dog that she tamed], she stopped feeling lonely.”

Teagan and I both enjoyed the first-person narration of this story. We felt Karana’s loneliness, fear, pride, and happiness. We marvelled at the way O’Dell used rich figurative language to express her unique internal life and understanding of the world.  Whether Karana compared her island to “a great fish sunning itself,” or the huts to “ghosts in the cold light,” this romantic view was always captivating.

Still, I was often uncomfortable with the author’s cultural appropriation. The most problematic example is Karana’s changing moral attitudes. She stops hunting otter, sea elephants, and birds for their meat, hides, and feathers. Near the end of the story, she says, “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.” The protagonist ignores her survival instincts and traditions to become a pescetarian and a nudist —a reflection of the author’s environmentalist philosophy. I expressed my frustrations to Teagan, explaining why I disapproved of a white man’s condemnation of Nicoleño tradition and lifestyle to voice his strong views of seal and otter hunting. 

Archeologist and historian Steve Schwartz gave a lecture on his recent, exciting discovery of a cave and artifacts believed to have been those of the Lone Woman of San Nicolas.

The Island of the Blue Dolphins is a classic story of survival we both loved. Still, if parents and educators choose to share this novel with children, they should consider taking the time to explore the true story of the Lone Woman and the Nicoleño tribe. We watched a fascinating lecture by US Navy archeologist and historian Steve Schwartz, who claims to have found the cave the lone woman lived in and tools she used. Schwartz’s revelations got Teagan and I talking about how the author could have shaped his novel differently to better portray the Nicoleño culture. By knowing the real history of this lost tribe, we can help dispel the myths this 50-year-old book helped shape.


CAROLE BESHARAH

Once upon a time, Carole Besharah catalogued picture books as a library technician in primary schools. With a B.A. and a lifetime of reading under her belt, she now writes children’s stories of her own. Carole lives at the foot of the enchanted Gatineau Hills with her husband and their two children.

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