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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, Ramo are left behind. Soon after, Ramo 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.
  • Big Sister Instinct: Karana is horrified when the tribal chief refuses to return for Ramo (though he's probably right that they can't because of the weather and currents), insisting that he can take care of himself until they can return. Unwilling to abandon her little brother, she jumps from the ship and swims back to shore.
  • Bus Crash: Zia reveals that Karana's older 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 isn't attracted to any of the Aleuts, as she doesn't trust them for a second.
  • Culture Clash: Begins pretty much right away after Karana is rescued, when the missionaries insist on making a dress for her to wear that meets their standards, which she finds both uncomfortable and visually unappealing compared to her own clothes. This continues in Zia, where she struggles to assimilate to life in the Mission; she manages well enough while Father Vicente is in charge, as he's willing to make accommodations for her, but when he leaves and she's forced to fully conform, she finds it so untenable that she chooses to return to a life of solitude, running away to live out her final days in a cave.
  • 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 older sister and younger 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.
  • Foolish Sibling, Responsible Sibling: Karana describes Ramo as "foolish as a cricket when he was excited." In the first chapter, he's supposed to be helping Karana dig roots the village needs for food, but when the Aleut ship appears, he gets excited by it and runs off, leaving Karana to dig by herself. Then, when the tribe has gathered to board the ship taking them to their new country, he forgets his spear and runs back to get it, despite Karana's warning him not to, resulting him being left behind. Had Karana not jumped into the sea to come back for him, he would have been completely alone. He caps off everything by he deciding to go hunting alone--again, over Karana's warnings--and is killed by wild dogs.
  • For Want Of A Nail: If Ramo had just listened to his sisters and gotten on the boat rather than go back for his spear, he and Karana wouldn't have been stranded, which in turn means he wouldn't have ended up being killed by wild dogs and Karana wouldn't have spent two decades of her life alone on the abandoned island.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 Millstone: Ramo forgets his spear as the tribe is leaving the island and insists on going back for it, despite Karana warning him to stay put. Sure enough, the ship leaves without him, and unwilling to abandon her brother, Karana jumps into the sea, resulting in them both being left behind.
  • Missing Mom: Karana's mother has died a few years before the book begins.
  • 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.
  • 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. Once their friendship becomes strong, she tells Tutok her secret name.
  • 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 ship carrying Karana's people sank en route to California and that the entire village drowned, and that Zia is therefore a product of retconning. However, the epilogue of Island of the Blue Dolphins actually states "the ship sank had sank in a great storm soon after it reached his country", which would seem to indicate that the ship did make it to California and safely dropped off the villagers, but sank before they could go back to rescue Karana. 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.
  • Revenge: Karana intends to kill the pack of wild dogs that killed her brother, but she adopts their leader instead.
  • Robinsonade: With a twist Karana isn't stranded far away from civilization, per se, but stranded without civilization, as everyone else sails away, leaving her behind. She has to learn to survive alone on the island she's always called home, without her community.
  • 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, insists on going back for his spear, resulting in him and Karana being left behind on the island, then caps it off by deciding 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 is clear in the epilogue that he only ever drew inspiration from Juana Maria's story, and that Island of the Blue Dolphins was always intended as a work of pure fiction, not a factual, or even embellished, retelling of Juana Maria's experiences.

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