Based on the experiences of a real young woman named Sarah Bishop, O’Dell’s novel is engaging because of its heroine. While Sarah is not a heroine in the classic sense of accomplishing a single spectacular deed, she is a heroine because she survives and does so through the strength of her own character, an important message for female readers and male readers alike.
As the novel opens, Sarah has already lost her mother, but the specific circumstances are not revealed. Almost immediately, Sarah’s father is killed and her brother enlists, leaving Sarah on her own. As one could imagine, Sarah has a difficult time accepting her father’s death, especially such a preventable and excruciatingly painful one as being tarred and feathered, and so tries to maintain her family by searching for her brother. When she finally earns enough money by working at the Lion and Lamb tavern, she goes in search of him, only to discover that she is hours too late to see him and that he has already been buried at sea. Lost and now truly alone, she is used as a Patriot pawn of the British troops and is held responsible for starting a fire. She escapes to the wilderness, where she uses the solitude and abundance of nature to nurture her spiritual well-being.
An interesting aspect of her personality is her abrupt departure from her earlier reliance on the church and the teachings of the Bible as these life-altering events occur in her life. Before Sarah leaves...
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Like Sarah Bishop, most of Scott O’Dell’s work is historical fiction, so it comes as no surprise that an award for a work of this genre set in the New World is given in his honor: the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction. O’Dell wrote other novels with strong, female characters such as Sarah. Karana, the central character of Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960), which won the Newbery Medal, lives alone on an island off the coast of California. She is finally rescued by Spanish priests after eighteen years, but one wonders whether Karana will find as much peace and happiness at the mission—and within civilization—as she did on her island home, a question that could be asked of Sarah as well. The question for Karana is answered in the sequel, Zia (1977), which reveals her last days as witnessed through the eyes of her niece.
Bright Morning is a similarly strong female character in O’Dell’s Newbery Honor Book Sing Down the Moon (1970). In a memorable story that reflects the dignity of the Navajo people, Bright Morning convinces her wounded fiancé to escape from a U.S. fort after their imprisonment there along the “Long Walk,” the horrific three hundred-mile forced march of the Navajo from their canyon homes to Fort Sumner. Like Sarah, they find refuge in a cave in their familiar homeland and, once there, begin a new life with their newborn son, their spirits healed. Other Newbery Honor Books by O’Dell are The King’s Fifth (1966) and The Black Pearl (1987).