Karana, the Indian girl left to survive alone for 18 years [in Island of the Blue Dolphins] was a one-in-a-million child protagonist—a loner free to work her destiny totally without interference from adults….
The jacket copy of Scott O'Dell's new book, Zia, notes that O'Dell has received many requests to tell what happened to Karana, and one can see in this novel some of the tension between the pressure to produce a good storyteller's sequel and the author's reluctance to violate an essentially self-contained episode, based on fact, with a fictional post script.
Thus the heroine of this story is not Karana, who reappears only briefly and tragically later on, but her niece Zia. Zia and her brother Mando are apparently the only other survivors of their tribe, and they live and work under the padres of the Santa Barbara mission where they conform despite a passive, impersonal resistance to their Spanish overlords.
When we first meet Zia she has discovered a whaler's boat washed ashore and she conceives a daring plan: with her younger brother as crew she will sail to rescue the aunt she has heard about and bring her back to the mainland. From the moment Zia and Mando set out we are under the spell that O'Dell creates so effectively. The mood is portentous, and the journey is not destined to end well….
Having failed in her first plan, Zia persuades the friendly Captain Nidever to go looking for Karana and Nidever takes Father Vicente, the most sympathetic of the priests, along to win Karana's confidence. But while Nidever is gone there is a revolt at the mission; the other Indians, led by a man aptly named Stone Hands, slip off in the middle of the night and Zia, who has stolen a key to help the plotters, is thrown in jail for refusing to tell where they have gone.
Zia is released from jail by Father Vicente when he returns triumphantly with Karana. Karana is at first ecstatic over her new experiences—the taste of melons, the sight of wild horses, learning to weave at the loom—but the mainland soon becomes another kind of prison. She is unable to communicate with anyone; even Zia has forgotten her native tongue and the other Indians regard her as crazy.
In the end Karana runs away to live in a cave on the beach and dies there while Zia, with nothing left to tie her to the mission, simply walks away to find her tribe's old abandoned home in the north. As much as one wants Zia to be free, her leaving has its troubling side. California is not an island, and one knows, historically that there was no escape for the Zias whose way of life was obliterated by the coming of the Spanish.
Nor does Zia's streak of detachment make for high adventure in the traditional sense. "I like you but this is not my home," Zia tells Father Malatesta calmly as she prepares to leave the mission once and for all. This kind of resigned statement is not what one expects from a child heroine. And though lots of exciting, even dangerous things happen to Zia—besides the boat trip and being thrown into jail, she is nearly caught in a brush fire set by one of Stone Hands's followers—the physical action is downplayed. O'Dell is not the arm-waving sort.
What draws one into this book, and probably accounts for the popularity of Island of the Blue Dolphins , as well, is O'Dell's short, loaded sentences which force the reader to participate. When Zia says,...
(This entire section contains 785 words.)
soberly, that she is scared—"I was afraid all over—in my stomach and in my head"—her emotional reactions are not spelled out to the last detail. Adults of course are so familiar with this style of writing that it hardly bears commenting upon, but young readers are rarely given this much leeway.
Once, when Zia is visiting Karana in her cave retreat, the older woman points out a fossilized "giant bird" visible in the cave wall….
And for the moment O'Dell does give us the power to imagine the thing alive; just as he enables us to pin our personal hopes on Zia's gallant bid for liberty.
At times like these one decides to forgive Zia for not being another Island of the Blue Dolphins. Stood side by side the two books seem to prove that truth is not only stranger but, well, truer. Zia is not the kind of archetypal heroine who will win a devoted following, but she has a self-contained strength of her own.
Joyce Milton, "Beyond the Blue Dolphins," in Book World—The Washington Post, May 2, 1976, p. L2.