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This 1961 Newbery Medal winner has come to be regarded as a classic of historical fiction for young readers, written by one of America’s most honored children’s authors. I remember seeing a film based on this book when I was a grade-schooler, and the feelings of heartbreak and loneliness that I associated with that film were still on target when I read the book at age 40. It’s an amazing, inspiring, exciting story, rich in discoveries about creatures of beauty and wildness and teeming variety; yet at the same time, it is a tale of deep melancholy whose ending may leave you wistful.
It is the story of a girl named Karana, whose people hunt the sea-life on and around their small, remote island in the Pacific. Most of the men in Karana’s tribe are killed in a battle with Aleuts, led by a Russian furrier, who have tried to cheat the islanders after hunting the sea-otters around the island close to extinction. Later a ship sailed by white men, invited by their old chief, takes the surviving islanders off to their mission in California. By a strange twist of fate, Karana is left behind and must find a way to survive alone on the island until the white men come back for her.
Karana waits year after year. But she must do more than wait. She must hunt for her own food. She must defend herself against the wild dogs who have already killed her brother. She must make a shelter to protect herself and her food supply from scavengers, predators, and the harsh elements. She must make her own canoe, in spite of a shortage of wood for the job. She tries to sail for the next island to the east, over the horizon, but is lucky to make it back alive to where she began. As so many seasons pass that the young woman stops counting them, she finds ways to fill even deeper needs: the need for companionship, supplied by the animals on the island; the need for beauty, even though she has no one to share it with; the need to explore the mysteries and wonders on, around, and beneath her island.
This book is a powerful instrument of the imagination—not only demonstrating that its author had one, but stirring the reader’s too. It makes all your senses aware of such (for most of us) faraway things as sea anemones, giant squid, otters, sea elephants, and cormorants. But here’s a fact that will really get the wheels of your imagination turning: THIS BOOK IS BASED ON A TRUE STORY. The so-called Island of the Blue Dolphins actually exists, off the coast of California. Now called San Nicolas Island, it belongs to the U.S. Navy. The main character of this book is likewise based on a real person, variously known as “Juana Maria” or “the lone woman of San Nicolas Island,” and she lived alone there for 18 years before being rescued, dying only a few weeks later at the Santa Barbara mission in California. Author O’Dell includes some information about her fate, and the archaeological discoveries regarding her long-vanished people, in an afterword to this book. If you can’t wait for that, you can wiki it for yourself. And if you read this book and find yourself even more interested than you are now, behold: Scott O’Dell also wrote a sequel, titled Zia.