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Literature / The Music of Dolphins

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"I must get back to the sea."

The Music of Dolphins is a 1996 book by author Karen Hesse. It is about a feral child named Mila, who has been raised by dolphins since she survived a plane crash at the age of 4. Now a teenager, Mila is captured by a government surveillance plane and brought to a research center for study.

Naturally, Mila is less than pleased by this turn of events, but she soon bonds with the human scientists. Although she still thinks of herself as a dolphin, she is eager to please her new friends, and quickly begins making progress. She is paired with another child named Shay, whose parents locked her up in a case reminiscent of the real-life feral child Genie. Shay has lived in complete isolation and therefore is far less developed than Mila.

Still, the two girls take to each other, and Mila even gets Shay to come out of her shell a bit. Everything is going well at first... until Mila starts to realize that there may be certain downsides to being human, and that, no matter how much progress she makes, society at large will never accept a girl who thinks she's a dolphin.


Tropes present in this work:

  • Abusive Parents: Shay, the other girl being studied alongside Mila, was locked in a little room and never spoken to by her mother. Mila is confused and saddened by this concept since dolphin mothers don't do that to their babies.
    A dolphin mother always is making certain her baby is good. A dolphin aunt is always near to help. The baby has food to eat, sometimes the thick fishy milk from the dolphin mother, sometimes the sweet fish fresh from the sea. The baby is protected when a shark comes. Where is the good mother to protect Shay?
  • Bittersweet Ending: Mila is ultimately unable to fully integrate into human society, and her physical health begins rapidly deteriorating. After the scientists realize that she could very well die otherwise, she's returned to her dolphin family.
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  • Bookends: Both the prologue and epilogue show Mila with her dolphin family.
  • Childhood Brain Damage: The mental kind rather than physical kind, but being severely neglected by her mother has fundamentally damaged Shay's psyche in such a fashion that she will never be able to be "normal".
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Mila has this in spades, given that she's been raised by dolphins.
  • Come to Gawk: Mila starts to fear that her story is being used for this purpose and that human society will only ever see her as "the dolphin girl" and never truly accept her.
  • Death of a Child: Mila's baby brother perished in the plane crash with their mother. Mila also mentions the behavior of mourning dolphin mothers trying to revive their dead offspring.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Mila spends the second half of the book slowly slipping towards this, and finally hits it when Shay is taken away.
  • Empty Shell: Shay appears to be this for the most part, but Mila and the scientists believe that she's fully aware of her situation and is choosing to withdraw into herself out of trauma. When Shay leaves, she's wearing the boots that Mila gave her as a present, showing that her mind isn't completely gone.
  • Epistolary Novel: The book largely consists of Mila's journal entries, related in her broken English.
  • Family of Choice: Discussed. When a letter from a man believed to be Mila's father arrives for her, Mila declares that the scientists and Shay are her family, rather than a man she has no memory of and who cannot come to see her.
  • Fish out of Water: Given that Mila's spent most of her life in the ocean, this is a nearly literal example.
  • For Science!: Dr. Beck's primary motivation is to use Mila to learn about dolphin communication.
  • Gratuitous Spanish: The janitor, Mr. Aradondo. Mila's name is also a diminutive of the Spanish word milagro, or "miracle".
  • Humans Are Bastards: Although the human characters in the story are all somewhat sympathetic, Mila is told that human society as a whole would not accept her.
  • Inner Monologue Conversation: This seems to happen at one point. When asked to explain what a pool is, Mila tells the reader, "Dr. Beck and Sandy think I am a stupid fish." Sandy responds, "Nobody thinks you are a stupid fish."
  • Intrigued by Humanity: Mila is quite interested in human society, though she still prefers dolphins. This starts to change as she regresses, and she starts thinking more negative thoughts about humans.
  • Irony:
    • For the first half of the book, Mila is making progress easily and seems to be adapting much better than Shay, while Shay is withdrawn and seemingly beyond help. By the end of the book, both their situations are very different. Shay has a new family she's happy with, while Mila breaks down until the only option is to let her go back to the dolphins.
    • Towards the end, we get a chapter that's only a paragraph long, where Mila tells the reader that Shay has stopped making progress. She says that the scientists have told her that this has happened with every feral child they've studied, except her. The chapter's minimalist nature makes it clear that Mila has also stopped making progress.
  • Jabba Table Manners: Due to being severely neglected and never socialized, Shay eats with her hands.
  • Living Emotional Crutch: Mila and Shay are this to each other. Mila is the only one who can bring Shay out of her shell a little, and Shay takes a turn for the worse when the two girls are separated. Having Shay also makes Mila feel that she isn't alone, and there's someone like her that she can help. The point of no return for Mila's regression is when Shay stops responding to her.
  • No Punctuation Period: For much of the book, there are no quotation marks when a character is speaking. They finally appear well into the book, as a sign of Mila's development. It doesn't last.
  • No Social Skills: At the start of the book, Mila literally thinks she is a dolphin. She has next to no concept of human behavior, and finds the human world alien and confusing. She does make progress under the encouragement of the scientists, but still very much prefers her dolphin family.
  • "Not So Different" Remark:
    • At one point, Mila thinks this about humans and dolphins... from a dolphin's point of view.
    • It's implied that Shay's regressing because she's come to see the scientists as being no different from her abusive parents, as both are keeping her locked up.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: "Mila" is the name given to the protagonist by the Coast Guard, who found her. A possible lead to her true name (Olivia) does turn up later on, but she never uses it.
  • Painting the Medium: In the prologue, Mila's narration is much more articulate and descriptive. At the beginning of her learning of human language and behaviors, the text is large and written in very simple sentences. As Mila learns more about being human, the text size decreases and her vocabulary becomes more complex. And then at the end, as Mila regresses, the text reverts to its earlier simplified state, and finally in the epilogue, it goes back to the more articulate and complex sentence structure seen in the prologue.
  • Parental Abandonment: Mila's father sends her a letter claiming that, for some reason, he is not allowed to come to the United States to visit her. It's possible that, given her mental state, he doesn't want the responsibility of looking after her.
  • Parental Neglect: Shay is a victim of a particularly extreme case of this. According to Mila, Dr. Beck explained that Shay's mother had kept her locked up in a little room "all day, all night" and never spoke to her.
  • Percussive Therapy: When Mila is frustrated with being locked in her room, she pounds on the walls and hurts her hands. Dr. Beck gives her an inflatable dummy and tells her that hitting it will make her feel better, but Mila does not want to do that, because hitting the dummy will not free her from the room.
  • Prefers Raw Meat: Mila prefers raw fish, since that's what she ate when living with her dolphin family.
  • Put on a Bus: Shay. Despite the best efforts of the scientists (and Mila), she never really does come out of her shell, so the funding to keep her at the facility is cut and she's shunted off to a foster home. It's later mentioned that one of the scientists went to visit her there, but she didn't remember him. On a lighter note, she's living a much happier life with her new family.
  • Raised by Wolves: Or dolphins, in Mila's case.
  • Ship Tease: Mila is attracted to Dr. Beck's son, Justin, thinking of him as a beautiful human boy and that he might be her mate if he were a dolphin. Justin, in turn, is very caring toward her. When Mila returns to the ocean at the end, the last contact she feels from the human world is Justin's embrace as he lets her go back to the dolphins.
  • Shrinking Violet: Shay is very shy and withdrawn. She starts to open up to Mila a bit, but it doesn't last.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome: Despite the scientists' efforts, neither Mila nor Shay are able to fully integrate into human society, as they have spent too much time out of it during their formative years (for different reasons). Mila is taken back to her dolphin family, while Shay is sent to a foster home.
  • Sympathetic P.O.V.: The entire story is narrated by Mila. As such, she seems significantly more human than the scientists studying her.
  • Thousand-Yard Stare: Towards the end of the book, this is the only expression Shay seems capable of making.
  • Tomato in the Mirror: This is the trigger for Mila's regression. When she sees television footage of her capture, she finds herself thinking that she is watching a "bad" girl, because the girl on the screen isn't acting human. Then, of course, she realizes that she is that girl.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The book is based on Real Life experiences of those who work with feral children.
  • Wham Line: In-universe example. When watching television footage of her capture, Mila becomes distressed. She hears one of the scientists say to another, "She did not recognize herself." This shocks Mila, as she didn't realize what she was watching. The following chapter shows that it's sent her into an identity crisis.
  • Wild Child: Both Mila and Shay. Due to their different experiences, Mila is much more sociable and outgoing than Shay, though she's still quite out there.
  • You No Take Candle: Mila has some difficulties with English and its syntax, including a seeming inability to comprehend anything but present tense in her writing.