Thursday, May 30, 2013

Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell

Source of book: I own this.

As regular followers of this blog recall, I participate in an online book club, hosted by my friend Carrie at This is our second year, and we are focusing on classics - an even mix of adult and children’s books. This month’s selection was the classic children’s book, Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell.

When I was a kid, we used to camp in the mountains during the summer, and at the beach in the fall and winter. Our favorite camping spot was just to the west of Ventura in a little campground squeezed between the shore and the railroad tracks. The view to the south includes oil rigs that look like pirate ships at night (at least to a kid).

During the day, at least on those clear winter days, one can see the hazy outline of a string of island: Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel. These are the islands of Channel Islands National Park. Farther to the south are a few more. Santa Barbara and Santa Catalina and San Clemente. And, to the west of these, San Nicholas Island, the setting of this book. 

San Nicholas Island from the north.

It is hard to believe that these islands are within a few dozen miles of the gigantic metropolis which is the greater Los Angeles area. Only Catalina is truly inhabited, and the northern islands have only a few visitors, most of which come to watch whales or scuba dive in the waters near the shore.

As a young adult, I learned to dive, and have spent more time at Catalina than any other place. I also have had some great experiences off the shores of Anacapa. There is a colony of sea lions there, and they jump in the water as soon as a boat pulls up, eager to swim and show off for the visitors. I also recall a time when we thought that a rock was covered with a brilliantly colored plant with fuzzy, moss-like branches, only to discover on closer examination that the “branches” were really the arms of thousands of brittle stars in a rainbow of colors.

San Nicholas Island is also considered to be a great place to dive, particularly for lobster hunting, although it is a six hour boat ride from the mainland. It is owned by the Federal Government, and used as a training facility by the Navy. It was originally considered as a potential site for the testing of nuclear weapons, before New Mexico got the privilege. 

Photo of lobster taken at San Nicholas Island.

Before California became a state, however, the islands were inhabited by two groups of Native Americans, the Chumash on the northern islands, and the Tongva on the southern islands. During the first half of the Nineteenth Century, these peoples were removed from the islands and brought into the Spanish mission system. Their language was lost, and many of them died from unfamiliar diseases. (A good book about this era in early California is Two Years Before the Mast, by Richard Henry Dana Jr.)

(Interesting side note: the islands are also the site of the earliest evidence of human occupation in North America. Evidence of habitation dates back about 13,000 years.)

Scott O’Dell wrote this story as a plausible tale about a real person. In 1835, the residents of San Nicholas Island were removed to the mainland. A woman was left behind, for reasons that are murky, with several explanations arising later. In any case, she lived alone on the island for the next 18 years, being finally “rescued” in 1853. By that time, no one knew her language, and she was unable to tell much of her story. She died a couple of months later, unused to the diet or the diseases. O’Dell wrote the story from her perspective. In that sense, it is a bit like a Robinson Crusoe set in the New World.

The woman, named Karana in the story, finds herself alone and must fend for herself. She repairs a canoe, builds a house, explores the reefs surrounding the island, tames a wild dog, and provides herself with food and clothing.

My kids liked the story, and didn’t flinch at the deaths that occurred, but some kids might find that a bit disturbing. (We moderns are good at keeping death in general out of sight and mind, but we forget that death used to be part of everyday experience. See for example, Mahler and the tiny coffins carrying his siblings.) There was enough humor to draw some laughs at times. The descriptions of how things were made were also interesting to them - and they were fascinated by the creatures. 

My one minor quibble with the book was a carelessness about directions. To get to Santa Barbara from San Nicholas, one must head north, not east. This is particularly egregious, since Karana would have known her directions. She did head east, the correct direction, to attempt to row to Catalina, after all. 

We did end up talking about some heavier topics as a result of this book.

First, Karana knows that she needs to make weapons for hunting and self defense against the wild dogs, but she must overcome the superstition of the tribe. Like most societies, ancient and modern, “primitive” and “advanced,” there are strong beliefs regarding gender roles and power that are enforced by instilling fear of what will happen if the roles are reversed. In this case, the Tribal belief is that weapons made by a woman will never fly straight, and all kinds of bad luck will ensue. (O’Dell took these beliefs from those of the related Chumash tribes.) Thus, Karana must fight against her own fears and the untruths she has been taught since a child if she wants to survive. (My second daughter picked up on this quickly - she is the one who asks all the awkward and deep questions...)

There was a more modern example of this age-old prejudice about women and weapons during World War Two. One of the best aircraft engines was the Rolls Royce Merlin, used to power a variety of British aircraft. It was so good that the United States decided to use it to power the P-51 Mustang - one of the sweetest aircraft of the war - and all time, if I say so myself. Since Britain couldn’t make enough, the design was licensed to the Packard company. Those engines were built by a mostly female workforce. Rosie the Riveter was no myth. Despite the disparaging comments made by many, the ladies turned out high quality engines with higher-than-average reliability. Also notable was the fact that a technical difficulty with the carburetor was solved by a female engineer.

The other serious issue that came up was the near extinction of two species caused by overhunting. A dispute over the hunting of sea otters leads to a battle which nearly wipes out Karana’s tribe. By the time of the book, the otter populations were already in decline, and continued hunting eventually reduced the total world population to about 1000. Finally, the otter was declared an endangered species, and hunting was banned. Fortunately, populations have rebounded - although the otter remains endangered. At a recent trip to the Central California coast, we saw a few otters playing in the waves. Otters are vital to the health of the ecosystem because they keep the population of sea urchins in check. The urchins otherwise would destroy the kelp forests, leading to a loss of fish, and so on. The otter is a conservation success story. One hopes that the condor continues on this path as well. 

Sea otters. I took this picture March 2013, at Shell Beach, California.

The other species that nearly disappeared was the abalone. These are, as the book notes, quite delicious, and they were severely overfished for a time. Several species are still protected, although the Red Abalone can be harvested in small quantities under limited conditions. Most abalone available commercially is farmed, rather than fished.

Endangered species are not the only ones described in the book. The reefs and kelp forests and their inhabitants are lovingly described in the book. The devilfish (octopus or squid), elephant seals, and of course, the dolphins. Dolphins still frequent the Channel Islands, and they do indeed love to accompany boats. Several times I have stood on the bow watching them swim just ahead of the prow. Dolphins are amazingly fast swimmers. Even on a fast boat - say 25 knots - they have been able to stay ahead, and even pull ahead. Magnificent animals, and impressive when encountered in pods of a hundred or so.

Even without all the associations that I have with the area and the flora and fauna, this book was a good read, full of interesting incident, and well written. I somehow missed reading this book as a child (although I did read other Scott O’Dell books), and am glad I was able to read it with my kids.


  1. Makes me miss CA. I can smell the salty air ... :)

  2. Fun, fun, FUN post!!

    I think you are right about our desire to keep the subject of death at bay. The subject DOES come up at our house with some regularity (because we're always referencing relatives...and Bookworm1 has been asking more specific questions about HOW they died.) So I don't think this book would have really bothered him as much as I think it would have bothered me to read it to him (as I mentioned in my review). In other words, the awkwardness is on my part, not his.

    I really enjoyed reading this book. In part, because we visited Catalina and so I could get a small picture in my mind's eye about the location. Loved reading your experiences in the area. I also enjoyed seeing a real photograph of the island.

  3. Great review. I'm bummed I didn't get to this one in time. I'm still going to reread it because it was SUCH a big deal to me when I was younger. It was possibly the greatest story on earth at the time. It even inspired a poem later in life (during a driver's ed class...I was paying attention...really) which I now can't find, sad to say.

    1. I laughed at the idea of writing poetry in driver's ed. It would sure beat yet another viewing of "Red Asphalt."