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Literature / The Music of Dolphins

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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.


  • 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.
  • Bookends: At the end of the book, Mila stands at the cay where she had been captured at the beginning, thinking of her experiences with being human.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Mila has this in spades, given that she's been raised by dolphins.
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  • Despair Event Horizon: Mila spends the second half of the book slowly slipping towards this, and finally hits it when Shay is taken away.
  • Diary: 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.
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  • Intrigued by Humanity: Mila is quite interested in human society, though she still prefers dolphins.
  • Infant Immortality: Averted with Mila's baby brother, who perished in the plane crash with their mother. Mila also mentions the behavior of mourning dolphin mothers trying to revive their dead offspring.
  • 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: At one point, Mila thinks this about humans and dolphins... from a dolphin's point of view.
  • 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: At the beginning, the text is quite 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Sympathetic P.O.V.: The entire story is narrated by Mila. As such, she seems significantly more human than the scientists studying her.
  • 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: "[Mila] did not recognize herself."
  • Wild Child: Both Mila and Shay. Due to their different experiences, Mila is somewhat more "normal" 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.


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