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 eighteen years before a ship appears to rescue her. Most of the story takes place on the island during Karana's years of solitary survival.
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 suggestion. This method of characterization is evident at the end of the story as well when the reader realizes that Karana's need for social approval and love has survived during her years of isolation. The existence of this need is reflected in her efforts to make herself attractive— donning an otter cape and a skirt of cormorant feathers—and in a moving scene following her rescue, where she wears the facial markings announcing that she is still unmarried.
(The entire section is 2,274 words.)