When my daughter was assigned this book for fifth grade reading, I was happy to read it. I enjoy history and have a special interest in Native American history. I thought this would be an interesting story, even though it is a fictionalized account.
Not so much. Besides the real story, itself, I found this book to be pretty boring. So did my daughter. And it wasn’t the tedium of being stuck on an island, alone, for years…
The true story goes like this: after a small Native American tribe that lives on a harsh island far off the coast of California is threatened and then decimated by otter hunters, they decide to flee on a missionary ship. It is the 1800s, and as they pull out into the difficult waters, one of the girls/young women doesn’t make it on to the boat. She is stranded on the island for 18 years by herself, until rescued and taken to the mainland to be reunited with her people, who are very few. This is all historical fact, but little else is known about the woman, known as Juana Maria.
In the 1960s, Scott O’Dell, a children’s novelist who specialized in California history, re-imagined the life of Juana Maria, fleshing out the details in what would become a Newbery Medal winner titled Island of the Blue Dolphins. Most of the account is made-up, but, of course, O’Dell used what he could discover about the tribe, times, and place. He makes Juana younger (probably for his audience) and explains her being stranded on her mischievous little brother. He also adds a dog character, which is a brilliant way to inject action into the story, explore Juana’s (called Karana in the book) humanity, and show her growth.
I can understand why you would have a child read this story, because it is interesting and informative, exposing them to several different things at once. The writing is clear, but, as I said, I just found the book to be boring. Now, I have read other stories about people being stranded alone (Death Watch, Selkirk’s Island, etc.), and of course this singularity poses a problem for an author. It’s hard to make anything interesting happen with only one character. But it has been done, and it needs to be done. I just don’t think O’Dell got there, and not because of the story. It was more his timing, his inclusion and exclusion of certain details, and pacing.
I also found that through the simplistic writing, Karana came off a little flat and unintentionally portrayed as unintelligent. Her resourcefulness and resilience is interesting, and possibly even empowering for readers, but her plodding along really made me feel like I, too, was plodding along.
I would not discourage you from trying out this quick read, but I would not put it at the top of my reading list unless I was obsessed with survival stories or California or Native American history.
I read Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O’Dell, the HMH Book for Children version from 2010. It was originally published in 1960.