Island of the Blue Dolphins is based on the true story of The Lost Woman of San Nicolas, who lived alone on an island from 1835 to 1853. The novel begins on a small island in the Pacific Ocean, seventy-five miles southwest of present day Los Angeles. Karana, a twelve-year old girl who lives in the village of Ghalas-at, and her six-year-old brother, Ramo, are gathering roots near a small harbor called Coral Cove. A ship with two red sails appears, causing a stir among the inhabitants of the village. Karana's father, Chief Chowig, reluctantly enters an agreement with the ship's captain, a Russian named Orlov, whereby Captain Orlov and his Aleut hunters may hunt otter if they give half their catch to the villagers. When Orlov and his crew violate the terms of the bargain, a skirmish follows. Twenty-seven of the forty-two Ghalas-at men are killed, including Chowig; Captain Orlov and his crew escape to their ship and leave Coral Cove. The new chief, Kimki, leaves the island in search of a place for the villagers to live. He does not return, but a ship of white men arrives, sent by Kimki to rescue his people. Karana boards with the others from her island and discovers that Ramo is not with them; against the pleas of her people, she leaps into the water and swims ashore. By the time she arrives on land, where she finds Ramo at the edge of the water, the ship has disappeared, never to return. Her brother is soon killed by wild dogs, and Karana lives on the island for...
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Island of the Blue Dolphins is narrated from the first-person point of view. O'Dell's artistry consists in great part in his ability to allow his characters to tell the story. O'Dell has Karana draw her images and facts from the only world she knows, that of a very small island in a very large sea. Her words and simple similes seem entirely appropriate to a teen-aged Native American girl who has spent her life on a small island. She speaks and thinks in terms of rocks, sand, sea, wind, birds, and fish. O'Dell taps the inherent beauty of this perspective to render a rich portrayal of Karana's experiences and feelings. Her innocence also gives the narrative simplicity and directness; the reader knows no more or less than Karana and is therefore drawn into the events almost as a participant as the story unfolds.
O'Dell excels at character development, and one of the novel's finest achievements is the convincing and seemingly natural change in Karana's personality during the course of the narrative. She develops attitudes and experiences emotions that often have to be inferred from her understated manner of expression. For example, she does not try to explain her reluctance to kill the wild dog after she has gone to such trouble to track him down and wound him. But the reader understands her motivation because, while O'Dell avoids explicit statements or explanations, he carefully selects a few gestures and images that convey meaning by strong...
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On more than one occasion O'Dell has stated that he is a preacher at heart. He feels strongly about certain moral and social issues, and he seeks to convey his views to his young readers — and to influence them; so his writings are intentionally, but not obtrusively, didactic. He says that one of his reasons for writing Island of the Blue Dolphins was his concern about the natural world and man's tendency to exploit and destroy the environment — specifically the wanton killing of sea otters and other forms of wildlife. Consciously reflecting Dr. Albert Schweitzer's "reverence for life," O'Dell emphasizes the importance of taking from the environment what one needs in order to live while also learning to cherish and live amicably with the other creatures of the world. He wants his readers to reject an adversarial relationship with nature in favor of one of respect, understanding, and cooperation. The chief enemies in his stories are ignorance, hatred, and lust for profit. To counteract ignorance, O'Dell fills his books with fascinating details of natural history; he shows how, through understanding, hatred and fear can be transformed into respect and can engender the simple but rare ability to forgive those creatures having needs that compete with man's own. The lust for profit — through animal skins in the early stories and gold in the later ones — figures prominently in O'Dell's work, where greed corrupts the other, better human impulses and often...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
When O'Dell wrote Island of the Blue Dolphins, he was not necessarily writing for young people. He had previously written for adults, and he chose to write about Karana at least in part because of his interest in American history and because her historical life appealed to him. His sometimes spare and direct style found itself a young audience for whom the details of Karanas survival was particularly inviting.
Much has been made out of his making a girl the focus of his tale of survival, although he had the compelling reason that the real-life figure had been female. One might generate a good discussion out of the issue of Karana's gender by emphasizing people's reaction to the focus on a girl, rather than why O'Dell did it. Another, more fruitful, course for a discussion to take would be to examine the historical details of the novel. The story is based on a real life, and the events take place on a real island off the southern Californian coast. What do we learn about Karana's people, about her era, about her island? Does O'Dell open our eyes to aspects of history that we had not before considered?
Another way of organizing a discussion is by comparing Island of the Blue Dolphins to its sequel Zia. The contrast between the too is stark, even troubling. Karana's heroic struggle to maintain body and sanity shifts to a nightmare of cruelty and corruption. The tale of her life ends in misery and anguish. Does this represent...
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Topics for Discussion
1. What are the sources for the figurative language used by Karana?
2. What foreshadowing is there that the Aleuts have brought trouble along with them?
3. What gives the Island of the Blue Dolphins its name?
4. If the Ghalas-at villagers had shared the white bass with the Aleuts, would the Aleuts have honored the terms of their agreement? Should the villagers have shared the fish?
5. What bearing does Ramo's death have on the eventual change in Karana?
6. What difficulties does Karana first encounter in making a home for herself?
7. Why does Karana's attempt to flee the island fail?
8. Why does Karana decide to take Rontu into her home?
9. What evidence is there that Karana is gradually changing in her sympathies with human and animal life? Give specific examples.
10. What common interests and emotions do Karana and Tutok, her supposed enemy, have?
11. What statement in the last chapter best explains Karana's need for human society?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Write a review of the 1963 film of the Island of the Blue Dolphins. How does it differ from the novel?
2. Research the history of the Ghalasat and the true story of The Lost Woman of San Nicolas, on which O'Dell's novel is based. Report on this history and discuss the accuracy of the novel's descriptions of tribal beliefs and customs.
3. Give an imaginary account of the life of Karana after her rescue from the Island of the Blue Dolphins.
4. Report on the history of the Aleuts. Discuss whether or not they are presented realistically by O'Dell. Also, explain why it is reasonable that a Russian is a captain of the Aleuts.
5. Compare Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, which is also about an individual stranded on an island, to Island of the Blue Dolphins.
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Island of the Blue Dolphins is a recent addition to the long literary tradition of the "Robinsonnade" — those innumerable works written directly under the influence of Robinson Crusoe. Since the advent of Crusoe the "castaway" story has been extremely popular, and has reappeared in such diverse forms, usually designed for young readers, as Wyss's Swiss Family Robinson (1812), Marryat's Masterman Ready (1841), Ballantyne's The Coral Island (1858), Verne's The Mysterious Island (1875), and Golding's Lord of the Flies (1954) to name but a few (and not to mention Gilligan's Island). The principal way that Island of the Blue Dolphins is different from these previous works is that they usually portray castaways in families or groups rather than as solitaries — even Crusoe had his Friday — whereas Karana is for the most part alone. She is somewhat in the company of Treasure Island's Ben Gunn, who had spent many years alone, and The Mysterious Island's Ayrton, who had been solitary so long that he had reverted to subhuman savagery. Karana had one advantage that was denied the other castaways, in that she was on her native island, not alien terrain, and her task was to continue rather than to initiate a new life. But whatever these stories' differences, many elements are the same and are found in Island of the Blue Dolphins: the catastrophic causes of the castaways' plight, the need to...
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Like Island of the Blue Dolphins, most of O'Dell's books are based on historical events or personal experiences. His fiction is solidly founded on facts and probabilities. Zia, a sequel to Island of the Blue Dolphins, maintains the same kind of restraint that marks the writing in the earlier book. Ironically, Karana cannot adjust to the society that rescues her from her island solitude. Not long after her return to the mainland, she retreats to a cave with her dog as her only companion. In a sense, she returns to her island, where she has known the only happiness in her short, strange life. The Black Pearl is also set in the Pacific Ocean, not far from San Nicolas Island, and Sarah Bishop and Alexandra are stories of heroines with history as a backdrop. Child of Fire resembles Island of the Blue Dolphins only in that the central character is isolated from society.
A film version of Island of the Blue Dolphins was released in 1963. O'Dell was disappointed with what the directors and screenwriters did with the story. He felt, with good reason, that the portrayal of Karana impaired her development as a character. The film focuses on the externals of island life rather than on the all-important changes and growth that take place within Karana during her solitary years.
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For Further Reference
Buell, Ellen Lewis. "Review." New York Times Book Review (March 22, 1960): 40-41. Summation of Island of the Blue Dolphins and its sources; commentary on style, theme, and substance.
Georgiou, Constantine. Children and Their Literature. New York: Prentice- Hall, 1969. For readers of all ages, this work includes commentary on O'Dell's masterful use of his source material.
Jackson, Charlotte. "Review." San Francisco Chronicle (May 8, 1960). A positive review that praises the restraint of O'Dell's style.
Kingston, Carolyn T. "The Tragic Moment: Loss." In The Tragic Mode in Children's Literature. New York: Teachers College Press, 1974. Mature examination of Island of the Blue Dolphins as tragedy.
Libby, M. S. "Girls' Romances of Today and Yesterday." New York Herald Tribune Books (May 8, 1960): 8. An appreciative review concentrating on the sources of the book's appeal.
Meigs, Cornelia, et al. A Critical History of Children's Literature. Rev. ed. New York: Macmillan, 1969. Contains a chapter that treats Island of the Blue Dolphins in the context of survival stories and considers it "unusual... both for subject and for beauty of literary style."
Milton, Joyce. "Beyond the Blue Dolphins." Washington Post Book World (May 2, 1976): 12. More a review of Zia, this provides insightful commentary on both books.
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