Island of the Blue Dolphins Summary

Scott O'Dell based the book on the true story of Juana Maria, a Nicoleño Native American who lived alone on San Nicolas Island for 18 years. The main character of the novel, Karena, was born in the village of Ghalas-at. Her people are hunters and gatherers, and they live in a small, close-knit community.

  • One day, the Aleuts come to the island to hunt otter. They make a deal with the village Chief, but refuse to honor it. When the villagers attack, the Aleuts decimate the population. A new chief is elected, and he sets out in a canoe to find new land for the tribe. He sends a boat to fetch the villagers. Karena boards the boat, but is forced to jump off when her brother Ramo is left behind.
  • Karena and Ramo wait for the boat to return. When Ramo is killed by a pack of feral dogs, Karena is forced to fend for herself. She hunts for food, makes spears, and builds a canoe. She vows to kill the wolves, but decides to tame their leader instead. She names him Rontu, meaning Fox Eyes.
  • Karena hides in a well-stocked cave when the Aleuts return to the island. She makes a friend of the girl who serves the Aleuts and is sad to see her go. Many years later, a boat comes to the island. Instead of hiding, Karena dons her finest cormorant feather dress and greets her rescuers. They take her to the mission is Santa Barbara, California, where she starts a new life.


Island of the Blue Dolphins appeals to readers in several ways. It is a story based on actual events, a kind of adventure that makes...

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Island of the Blue Dolphins Chapter Summaries

Island of the Blue Dolphins Chapter 1 Summary

It is a day to remember. A twelve-year-old girl and her six-year-old brother are gathering roots, which grow every spring. They are at the head of a canyon that leads to a small harbor called Coral Cove. When she first sees the ship approaching, it is small, like a shell floating on the sea. As it sails closer, it looks like a gull with its wings folded. Finally it becomes a red ship with two red sails, and it is approaching their island.

The boy is small but quick, and when he gets excited he does foolish things. Because she wants him to help her gather roots, his sister does not point out the ship to him as she digs for roots with a sharp stick. But the boy’s black eyes miss little, and he tells his sister he sees the sea as a flat, blue stone with a small cloud on it (for he has never seen a ship). She is determined to have him help her work and denies seeing anything out of the ordinary.

The boy, Ramo, pretends to work and not watch the approaching cloud, but soon he asks his sister if she has ever seen a red whale. She lies and tells him yes, that a young boy has not seen everything an older girl has seen. Soon, though, he knows it is a giant canoe and he is so amazed at the sight that he throws the root he is holding into the air and is gone, crashing through the brush and shouting as he runs.

His sister is even more excited than her brother, but she continues gathering roots with a trembling hand. She knows that the ship’s arrival can mean many things and she would like to leave her task and run to the village, but she keeps digging because the roots are needed by her people. When her basket is full, she sees the ship has made its way into the harbor between the two great rocks which guard Coral Cove. Word of the ship had already reached her village, Ghalas-at, and her people are moving. The men are hurrying down the trail to the shore, weapons in hand, and the women are gathering at the edge of the mesa overlooking the cove.

The girl has made her way to the sea cliffs and crouches there to watch. Half the men of her village are standing at the water’s edge; the other half is concealed by the rocks, ready to fight if necessary. The girl leans over the cliff as far as she can to see and hear everything below her. A smaller boat has left the ship. Six men with long oars are rowing the boat; they have dark hair and bone ornaments stuck through their noses. A tall man with a yellow beard is...

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Island of the Blue Dolphins Chapter 2 Summary

The Aleuts and Captain Orlov move to the island immediately, making many trips back and forth from their ship. They are camping on higher ground, with permission from the chief, since the beach is small and the tide often covers it. They camp here most of the summer.

The island is two leagues long and one league wide, and from a high vantage point the island looks like a dolphin lying on its side. It is named The Island of the Blue Dolphins, either because of its shape or because many dolphins live in the sea surrounding it. The wind is strong on the island, polishing rocks and twisting trees. The village is situated near the cove and a good fresh spring. North of the village is another spring, and that is where the Aleuts erected their low tents made of skins.

The girl’s father warns his people not to visit the hunters’ camp, for their ways and language are not the same. Each of them will benefit from the hunting; the Aleuts will take otter and leave behind goods which the villagers can use. Befriending them will not bring any profit to the natives. While these are not the same hunters who “caused trouble” before, they are of the same tribe; they do not understand friendship. No one disobeys their chief; however, someone is always watching the Aleuts to see what they do and how many otters they kill.

After Ramo watches, he says Captain Orlov brushes his beard until it is shiny every morning. When Ulape (Karana’s older sister by two years) watches, she tells everyone that one of the hunters is a girl who keeps her long hair tucked under her hunting cap. No one believes her. The Aleuts are also watching the village or they would not have learned about the village’s good fortune. Early spring is not a good season for fishing, so the villagers eat sparingly then, mostly from their autumn stores. Ulape is gathering shellfish, and on the way home she hears a loud noise behind her. Looking down from the cliff, she...

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Island of the Blue Dolphins Chapter 3 Summary

Wide kelp beds surround the island on three sides, drifting out a league away from land. This is the hunting ground the Aleuts worked from dawn to dusk each day, coming back at dusk towing their dead otters behind them. Sea otters are different from seals; they are much more playful and spend their days floating on their backs and sunning themselves in the kelp beds. The hunters only want them for their valuable pelts.

Each day the hunters sling their arrows at the otters, and each night they spend hours skinning the creatures, abandoning their bloody carcasses on the beach to be washed away by the tide. Tribe members watch and count and are glad because of all the beads and other things that each pelt represents. Karana never watches the killing, for the otter are her friends, and watching them frolic in the sea is better than any kind of beads around her neck.

One morning she tells her father that there has been too much killing, that the otters are nearly gone. He laughs and tells her she is only looking at this side of the island; there are two more, and the otter will come back after the hunters leave. Karana is not convinced, sure there will be none left in a few weeks. Her father assures her the hunters will be leaving soon, for their boat is already heavy with pelts.

In fact, the village has begun keeping lookouts on the beach and near the camps, watching to make sure the Aleuts do not leave without paying for the otter they killed. Occasionally a large tree trunk washes ashore; when it does, the men drag it away from the shoreline and build a canoe. Some of the men are building one now, sleeping by it at night, watchful on behalf of the village. They are all afraid the Russian captain will cheat them, so they are vigilant. Every hour a messenger brings news to the village.

Ulape brings news that the woman hunter is cleaning her skin aprons, something she has never done before. Ramo announces that Captain Orlov trimmed his beard this morning, so it looks the way it did on the day he arrived. The Aleuts who used to spend all day sharpening the group’s hunting spears now concentrate their efforts on skinning the otter which the hunters have caught. The village of Ghalas-at knows these signs and knows the hunters are preparing to leave soon. Now they wonder if the captain will keep his word or if they will have to fight to get what they are owed. These are the questions the villagers ask all day; but their chief says nothing, just works faithfully on the new spear he is making.

Island of the Blue Dolphins Chapter 4 Summary

It is a sunless day when the Aleuts leave the island. The sea is rough and the waves are roaring, spraying white water against the rocks. Before the day is over, there will be a storm. Shortly after dawn, the hunters pack up their tents and carry them to the beach. Captain Orlov has not yet paid for the otter skins, so when they hear that he is leaving, the villagers make their way to Coral Cove—first the men with their spears, followed by the women and children. While the women stay hidden in the bushes by the cliff, the men wind their way down the trail to the beach.

Ulape and Karana are in the same spot the younger girl had been in when the hunters first arrived. It is low tide, and the beach is scattered with...

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Island of the Blue Dolphins Chapter 5 Summary

In the history of Ghalas-at, this night is the worst. At the beginning of the day, the tribe had forty-two men; now they have only fifteen, seven of whom are old. Every woman on the island has lost someone. The storm blows for two days; on the third day they bury their dead on the south side of the island. They burn the fallen Aleuts.

Ghalas-at is quiet for many days, the villagers leaving only to gather food and come back to eat in silence. Some in the tribe want to leave and go to an island called Santa Catalina, far off to the east, but others say there is little fresh water there. A council is held, and the villagers decide to stay. They also select a new chief, Kimki. He is very old, but he was a good man and...

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Island of the Blue Dolphins Chapter 6 Summary

Kimki has been gone for one moon. Even on stormy days, someone watches the sea from the cliffs, hoping for their chief’s return. But spring came, and then summer, and there is no sign of Kimki. There had been little rain that winter, and now many of the villagers are fearful they will run out of fresh water. The springs had run low before, but now there is fear in the village. Matasaip, who is the chief since Kimki left, says they have more important things to worry about, as this is the time of year when the Aleuts came last year.

Watchers on the cliffs look for the red sails. Ghalas-at prepares to leave if the hunters arrive, for they will be unable to defend themselves. They store food and water in canoes placed at...

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Island of the Blue Dolphins Chapter 7 Summary

The villagers had left nearly everything behind them when they left for the cliffs, so as they are packing all their belongings now there is great excitement. Nanko is walking around trying to get them all to hurry, for the wind has risen and the ship cannot wait long. Karana fills two baskets with the belongings she wants to take: three whalebone needles, an awl, a stone knife, two cooking pots, and a small box made of shells containing many earrings. Ulape is vainer than her sister and has two boxes of earrings. She also draws a thin mark across her nose and cheekbones with blue clay—the symbol of being unmarried.

Nanko and Ulape tease one another, but he is serious about rushing everybody to the ship as the winds...

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Island of the Blue Dolphins Chapter 8 Summary

The storm is strong as Karana and Ramo climb the trail, and they take shelter until night falls and the wind subsides. The deserted village looks eerie by moonlight, and there is an odd sound, like running feet. As they get closer, Karana realizes dozens of wild dogs are scavenging through the empty huts. They run away, snarling, when the two humans approach. The dogs must have gorged themselves on the stored food, for there was barely anything left for the children to eat for dinner. They sleep near a fire, and Karana hears the dogs howling nearby all night. In the morning, though, the pack trots back to its lair in a cave at the north end of the island.

Ramo and Karana spend the day gathering food. The wind is still...

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Island of the Blue Dolphins Chapter 9 Summary

This is a difficult time for Karana, and she remembers spending all her time thinking about how to survive on her own. She only leaves the village to replenish her food supplies. But she will never forget the day she vowed to leave the village forever. It is a foggy day. The mist creeps in and out of the huts, reminding her of all those who are dead or gone. The noise of the surf becomes the sound of their voices. For a long time she watches and listens; when the sun comes out the fog vanishes and she makes a fire against the back wall of her home. When that hut is gone, she burns another until all of them are destroyed. Nothing but ashes mark the village Ghalas-at.

She leaves with nothing but a basket of food and walks...

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Island of the Blue Dolphins Chapter 10 Summary

Summer is the best time on the Island of the Blue Dolphins, for the weather is good and the wind from the west is mild. Each day, Karana is hopeful she will see a ship on the horizon. Once she sees a small object and grows hopeful, but when water rises from it she knows it is just a whale. The first winter storm crushes her hopes of being rescued, at least for another season, and her heart is filled with loneliness. She had believed Matasaip before, but now her hopes are dead. She does not eat much and her sleep is filled with “terrible dreams.”

One storm is so fierce that she must sleep under the rock, feeding a fire for protection. She sleeps there five nights. The first night the dogs come and circle outside the...

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Island of the Blue Dolphins Chapter 11 Summary

Karana wakes up when the waves begin dragging at her feet. It is night but she is too tired to go to the rock, so she crawls higher on the beach to avoid the tide and sleeps again. In the morning she unloads her provisions and turns the canoe over so the tide cannot take it before she walks to her headland home. It feels as if she has been gone a long time, and everything she sees around her fills her with happiness. It is a surprising feeling, since just days ago she had stood on this rock and felt as if she could not stand to live here one more day.

As she looks at the vast expanse of blue ocean, all of the fear she felt while on her voyage comes sweeping over her. Yesterday when she saw the island, she had been...

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Island of the Blue Dolphins Chapter 12 Summary

Two whales had washed up on the sands many years before, and Karana finds some of the rib bones to use in making her fence. She has to dig them out and carry them to the headland. They are long and curved, and after she places them in the holes she digs, they stand taller than she does. The girl puts the ribs close together with the curve facing out, making them impossible to climb, and weaves them together with many strands of bull kelp which will shrink tight when it dries.

The fence takes her a long time to build; it would have taken her longer if the rock were not one end and part of one side of the fence. As an entrance and exit, she digs a hole under the fence just big enough for her to slide through and lines it...

(The entire section is 850 words.)

Island of the Blue Dolphins Chapter 13 Summary

The night before she plans to go the place of the sea elephants, Karana does not sleep much. She worries about what might happen since she broke the tribal law and made a weapon, and she worries about getting injured by the huge creature and then falling prey to the dogs in her weakened position. She worries all night, but when the sun comes up she is on her way to the place where the sea elephants live.

By the time she arrives, the animals have gathered on the shore. The bulls, like giant gray boulders, are sitting on the pebbly shore while the cows and their babies, below them, play in the waves. Even the babies are as big as a man, though they do all the things babies do. The bulls are bad-tempered and jealous, so...

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Island of the Blue Dolphins Chapter 14 Summary

Karana’s leg hurts so much by the time she arrives at her home that she is barely able to crawl under the fence and move the heavy rock on the inside of the fence. For five days she cannot leave because her leg is swollen and she has no herbs with which to treat it. She has plenty of food to eat, but after two days the water is getting low, and two days later her water basket is empty. Today she must go to the ravine to get water.

She leaves at dawn, taking her spear and her bow and arrows. The journey takes her a long time, for she has to crawl on her hands and knees with her food tied to her back and dragging her weapons. The short way to the spring is over many rocks, so she has to travel the longer way through the...

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Island of the Blue Dolphins Chapter 15 Summary

As long as Karana can remember, there have been wild dogs on the Island of the Blue Dolphins; after the Aleuts killed most of the men, their dogs joined the others and the pack grew much bolder. Even before the ship came, the dogs were raiding and prowling through Ghalas-at, but then the ship came. The girl is sure the pack is as bold as they are because of their leader, the one with the gray fur and the yellow eyes.

No one had ever seen this dog before the Aleuts arrived, so they must have left him behind; he is much larger than the others, who all have short hair and brown eyes. She has killed four of the dogs, but the pack has grown because new dogs have been born; the young dogs are even wilder than the old ones....

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Island of the Blue Dolphins Chapter 16 Summary

The white man’s ship does not come for her that spring or that summer, but every day Karana watches for it. She also watches for the red ship of the Aleuts. If the hunters come back, she will probably hide in the cave she has provisioned, for it is near water, surrounded by brush, and unapproachable except by way of the sea. The Aleuts did not use the spring near this cave, so they would only find her by accident. In case she has to flee, she begins working on the canoe she abandoned after her failed voyage.

It takes her two days to unbury the canoe, and she camps on the sands while she works. To make the canoe smaller, she cuts the sinews, heats the pitch to loosen it, and removes the planks. She shapes the planks to...

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Island of the Blue Dolphins Chapter 17 Summary

Winter rain and wind storms come early to the island, and Karana stays busy making herself another dress and fashioning another spear, one which will help her catch the giant devilfish. She has seen her father make the spear and knows what it looks like and how it is used, so she is eventually able to recreate one of the spears after many errors and much work. Four of the sea elephant teeth are left, and she breaks all but one in her attempts to make the spear. That one she works down to a barbed point; it is connected to the shaft in such a way that when the spear is thrown and strikes the devilfish, the head comes loose from the shaft. It floats while the sharp point remains attached by a string to the thrower’s wrist. It is an...

(The entire section is 993 words.)

Island of the Blue Dolphins Chapter 18 Summary

It is a beautiful spring on the island, and flowers of all kinds are blooming everywhere. Many kinds of birds also visit the island, including black-and-white birds which peck holes in the poles of the girl’s roof and in the whale-bone fence. Karana even sees birds she has never seen before on the island. A pair of birds made a nest in one of the crippled trees near her house, a nest shaped like a pouch. The birds have yellow bodies and scarlet heads, and soon there are two eggs in the nest. Once they hatch, Karana leaves small pieces of abalone under the tree, and the parents feed the bits to their babies. The young birds are gray and ugly, but she takes them from their nest and puts them in a cage made out reeds which she made...

(The entire section is 515 words.)

Island of the Blue Dolphins Chapter 19 Summary

Every day during the spring, Karana and Rontu paddled through the sea caves looking for the giant devilfish; they found several others, but never the giant one. When summer comes she quits searching for him and begins to gather abalones for winter. She also gathers a few shellfish near the rocks at Coral Cove. Today the tide is low and the reef rises far above the water. Her canoe is nearly full and the day is windless, so she ties the canoe and climbs onto the reef, Rontu following, to find a fish to spear for their dinner.

With a sinew line and a hook made of abalone shell, she catches two large fish, gives one to Rontu, and gathers several purple urchins for dying as they walk back to the canoe. Rontu suddenly drops...

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Island of the Blue Dolphins Chapter 20 Summary

Karana gathers two more canoes full of abalones and dries them for winter on her fence. The children used to be responsible for keeping the gulls away as the abalones dry, for in one morning, they can carry away a month’s harvest. At first, she leaves Rontu behind to chase off the gulls; however, he shows his unhappiness by howling the entire time she is gone. Finally she ties strings to the abalone shells and hangs them from poles. They are shiny as they catch the sun in the wind, and they keep the gulls away.

She also catches the small fish she uses for light in the winter and dries them on the shelves of her house. With all the fish and the abalone and the flashing shells, it appears that an entire village lives on...

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Island of the Blue Dolphins Chapter 21 Summary

The first night the Aleuts are on the island, Karana leaves her new home but leaves Rontu behind, since he would be sure to smell out any dogs the Aleuts might have brought. The hunters’ campfires are bright against the dark of the mesa, the same place they camped last time—and less than half a league from her cave. She considers moving to another part of the island. She is not afraid the men will see her, as they hunt all day; it is the girl she is afraid will see her. She stands on the rock until the fires die. After considering all her options, she decides to stay in the ravine.

Karana goes back to the cave and stays there until the next full moon and she has little food left. She and Rontu climbed to the...

(The entire section is 939 words.)

Island of the Blue Dolphins Chapter 22 Summary

That night Karana sleeps on the headland near her five baskets of belongings. She did not go back into her cave, and she did not take the necklace from the rocks. At dawn she hides on a brushy ledge near the spring and where she can observe the mouth of her cave. The sun is shining on the black necklace and Karana wants to go see if they will make two loops around her neck, but she stays where she is. She watches all morning; when the sun is high, Rontu barks and she hears steps below her. Tutok comes out of the brush, singing as she walks toward the cave. She stops and grows quiet when she notices the beads still lying on the rock.

As she is about to leave, Karana jumps to her feet and calls the girl’s name. She...

(The entire section is 658 words.)

Island of the Blue Dolphins Chapter 23 Summary

The Aleut hunters have left many wounded otters behind them. Some float to land and die there; others Karana kills because they are obviously suffering. She finds one young otter that has not been badly hurt. It is lying in a bed of bull kelp, and she would have paddled right past it if Rontu did not bark. A strand of kelp is wound around its body, something otters do when they want to sleep; however, this one has a deep gash across his back. The otter does not try to escape when she reaches for it, and his normally large eyes are open so wide in pain and fear that she can see herself reflected in them.

She cuts the strands of kelp and takes the animal to a sheltered tide pool by a reef. Karana catches two fish and is...

(The entire section is 701 words.)

Island of the Blue Dolphins Chapter 24 Summary

Spring on the island is beautiful once again. Tainor and Lurai build a nest in the tree where they are born, and when they hatch two ugly fledglings, Karana knows they will one day be as beautiful as their parents. She names them and clips their wings, as well, and soon they are also tame. A gull with a broken leg also becomes part of her family, and her yard seems like a happy place. Yet she thinks about Tutok and Ulape, wondering if they have real children, so different from Karana’s children and not what she had always hoped to have.

Karana decides to start early collecting abalones in case the Aleuts come again, and one day she sees a herd of otter frolicking in the kelp bed, playing much like the Ghalas-at...

(The entire section is 493 words.)

Island of the Blue Dolphins Chapter 25 Summary

Never again do the Aleuts come to the Island of the Blue Dolphins, but every summer Karana watches for them and every spring she gathers shellfish, which she dries and stores in the cave along with her canoe. Two winters after the hunters left, she makes more weapons to store with the food and her canoe. In case they ever do return, she will always be ready to go to another part of the island, or even move from cave to cave if she must.

For many summers after the hunters left, the herd of otters leaves Coral Cove. The oldest otters in the herd remember the time of year when the danger comes, and they lead the herd away from the island to stay at Tall Rock until the first winter storms arrive. Sometimes Karana and Rontu...

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Island of the Blue Dolphins Chapter 26 Summary

That winter Karana does not ever go to the reef. She eats the food she has stored and leaves the house only to get water from the spring. Even if Rontu had been with her, she would not have left the house often because the winter storms and winds were strong. She does make four snares from notched branches.

Once during the summer she saw a young dog that looked like Rontu. Though he was running with one of the packs of wild dogs, she was sure he must be Rontu’s son. He was larger than the other dogs, had heavier fur and yellow eyes, and ran gracefully like Rontu. During the winter, she makes the snares so she can catch him in the spring. Now that Rontu is gone, the wild dogs come to her house often. Once the worst of...

(The entire section is 685 words.)

Island of the Blue Dolphins Chapter 27 Summary

After the fierce winter storms come days with no wind, and it is hot and sultry on the island. On the final day of this weather, Karana takes the canoe and paddles around the reef to the sandy beach. It is a good thing she does not bring Rontu-Aru with her, as he does not like the heat and this day is the hottest of all. The air is shimmering with heat, and the sea shimmers with a red light. The gulls are not flying, the little crabs are deep in their holes, and the otters are quiet in the kelp. The wet sand is steaming in the heat.

Each spring, Karana must spread fresh pitch in the cracks in her canoe, so she drags it up the beach and works on this task all morning. When the sun is high, she crawls under her canoe for...

(The entire section is 982 words.)

Island of the Blue Dolphins Chapter 28 Summary

The earthquake did little damage. The spring stopped running for several days but is now flowing stronger than ever. The worst is the loss of all the food and weapons Karana had stored in the caves and the loss of the canoe she had been working on and the others hidden under the south cliffs. With the scarcity of wood on the island, the canoes will be the most difficult to replace. On the first fair morning after the event, she goes to look for any wreckage washed up by the storm on the shore.

In the rocks near the island’s southern cliffs, she finds part of a canoe. She digs all morning to extricate it and must then decide whether to dismantle it and take it piece by piece back to Coral Cove (which would take her...

(The entire section is 769 words.)

Island of the Blue Dolphins Chapter 29 Summary

After two more springs have come and gone, the ship comes back. Karana sees it at dawn from the headland on a clear, calm morning. By the time the sun is high, the ship is anchored in Coral Cove. She watches until the sun goes down while the men make camp on the shore and build a fire. She goes back to her house and tries to sleep but cannot; all she can think of is the man who once called to her. She has thought of his voice many times since that day. Every day of the spring and summer since then, she has gone to the headland and watched—always at dawn and at dusk.

In the morning she smells smoke from their fire. She goes to the ravine and bathes before putting on her otter cape and her cormorant skirt. She wears her...

(The entire section is 891 words.)