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Literature / Island of the Blue Dolphins

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Island of the Blue Dolphins, written by Scott O'Dell and published in 1960, tells the true story of the "Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island," an Indigenous American woman marooned for 18 years, and was the Newbery Medal winner of 1961. Think Robinson Crusoe, but with a Native American girl.

Spanning from the period before her abandonment up to her departure from the island, the story is narrated by Karana, the marooned woman. After many of Karana's people are killed in a battle with Aleut hunters, the remaining islanders emigrate from the island to the California mainland. An impending storm forces the ship to leave early and Karana and her younger brother are left behind. Soon after, her brother is killed by a pack of wild dogs. The ship never returns, and Karana is left alone on the island for what will be 18 years.


During that time, she learns to survive on her own. She takes over traditionally male tasks such as canoe-building and spear-making in order to survive, overcoming superstition that doing so would bring bad luck. Also during that time she domesticates the wild dog who killed her brother, attempts and fails to leave the island on her own, fights a "devilfish", and secretly befriends an Aleut girl when the Aleut hunters return.

A film adaptation was released in 1964, directed by James B. Clark and starring Celia Kaye as Karana.

In 1976 O'Dell wrote a sequel, Zia, which tells of Karana's eventual return to the mainland and her experiences at a Spanish-run mission along with her eponymous niece.


Tropes found in Island of the Blue Dolphins:

  • The Aloner: Karana gets trapped, alone, on the island her people used to inhabit, but then left due to the unscrupulous Aleuts (led by a Russian) that came to visit them and ended up killing off many of their men. Even after she gets off the island, she's unable to find anyone else from the island or even who speaks her language, so in a sense she remains "alone".
  • Based on a True Story: In fact, in 2012 researchers uncovered the cave where the woman who inspired the story lived.
  • Beware of Vicious Dog: A pack of wild dogs roam the island and kill Karana's younger brother. She sets out to get revenge on them, but she ends up nursing their pack leader to health. The leader (named Rontu) ends up averting the trope by becoming her loyal companion.
  • Bus Crash: Zia reveals that Karana's sister (Zia's mother) died while Karana was still on the island.
  • The Chief's Daughter: Karana is actually the daughter of the chief, but she averts the trope as she doesn't trust the Aleuts for a second.
  • Death by Despair: In Zia, the exact cause of Karana's death is unknown, but Zia believes that it was the shock of finally meeting some people, and then realizing she couldn't connect to them anymore.
  • Death by Newbery Medal: Let's see... Karana's father, Karana's brother, a large chunk of Karana's village, and her dog.
  • Defeat Means Friendship: Karana's dog, Rontu. After nearly killing him, she has a change of heart and adopts him.
  • Deserted Island: Karana's island becomes this after she leaves. Otherwise, it was deserted with her just on it, after Ramo dies.
  • Dropped a Bridge on Him: Ramo, as he gets killed by feral dogs when he goes out hunting.
  • Good Shepherd: Father Vicente in Zia; Zia cites him as someone who always genuinely listens to her and the others, he's willing to join a dangerous mission so he can be there to help Karana when she's rescued, and during his brief time as the senior priest, he's much more flexible with the Mission residents and generally seems to want them to feel comfortable and to like being there, something neither his predecessor nor his successor ever take into consideration.
  • I Know Your True Name: The people of the tribe have a name others know and a secret name. The chief uses his secret name with the Aleuts and when he dies, the people believe it was because he used his secret name.
    • Name That Unfolds Like Lotus Blossom: Of the public names, we only know Karana's: Won-a-pei-lei, ("girl with long black hair") which she initially tells to Tutok, but when the latter leaves, she tells Tutok her secret name.
  • Identical Grandson: When they're first reunited, Karana immediately identifies Zia as a loved one despite never having met her; Zia speculates that Karana must recognize her for her resemblance to her mother, Karana's sister.
  • Kids' Wilderness Epic: Karana isn't a child, but she isn't quite an adult either, at least at the book's onset, and she must learn to survive while exploring her island home.
  • Last of Her Kind: Possibly Karana, in the sequel. At the time she arrives at the mission, there is no one there who actually came from Ghalas-at, only their descendants, nor does anyone ever mention them living anywhere else. We do know that Zia, Karana's niece, does not speak her language (or any other Native American language; she only knows English and Spanish), so either the other members of the tribe weren't around to teach her, or else they all assimilated into Spanish culture (which would still leave Karana as the last who still follows the old tribal beliefs and practices).
  • The Musical: The Seattle Children's Theatre made a musical play of the story for kids. Less than halfway through the book's story she immediately leaves the island with the Aleut girl.
  • Odd Friendship: Karana and the Aleut woman Tutok. Karana herself initially distrusts Tutok because of what the Aleuts did to her tribe and doesn't want to like her, but Tutok is kind and friendly and Karana is desperately lonely, with Tutok being the first other human she's had contact with in years, and they form a friendship despite their cultural histories and their language barrier.
  • Retcon: Averted. People seem to have the impression that the entire village drowned before reaching California. However, the book states that "the ship sank had sank in a great storm soon after it reached his country", which would imply that they dropped off the rest of Karana's village on the mainland, but sank before it could go back for her. This means that Karana having a niece and nephew through her sister (the only member of her family to make it off the island) is not a retcon at all.
  • Robinsonade: With a twist - Karana isn't stranded far away from civilization, per se, but stranded without civilization, as everyone else leaves and she is left behind. She has to learn to survive alone on the island she's always called home, without her community.
  • Roman à Clef
  • Revenge: Karana intends to kill the pack of wild dogs that killed her brother, but she adopts their leader instead.
  • Sudden Sequel Death Syndrome: In Zia, Karana dies soon after arriving at the Santa Barbara mission - much like what happened to the real Lone Woman.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Karana's brother, Ramo, decides to go off hunting, alone, on an island with packs of vicious wild dogs running around everywhere. Naturally, he doesn't last very long.
  • Uncanny Family Resemblance: How Karana can tell that Rontu-Aru is Rontu's son.
    • In the sequel, Zia believes that Karana recognizes her because of Zia's strong resemblance to her mother, Karana's sister.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Karana's story is based on the story of Juana Maria, the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island, but it's heavily fictionalized. The Lone Woman's tribe really was decimated by Aleut hunters (although the circumstances of the conflict were different), and she really was left behind when the rest of her village was evacuated, but everything that happens to her between then and the rescue is almost entirely pure fiction, since virtually nothing is known about Juana Maria's years alone on the island other than what could be gleaned from the rescuers' observations. As far as the follow-up in Zia, Juana Maria really was rescued and brought to a Spanish mission where she died shortly thereafter, but the similarities end there; Juana Maria did not have relatives in the mission, nor did she have the level of difficulty and conflict with the people of the Mission that Karana does. For his part, O'Dell states in the epilogue that the novel is a work of fiction Inspired by Juana Maria and was never intended to be a factual retelling of her story.