Thursday, June 9, 2016

61 Books: #29

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–28 are below this post.

29. Scott O'Dell, Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960) (6/9/16)
I had not read this book in something like fifty years, but as a girl it was one of my favorites. I was brought to it again via a job: proofreading a new "critical edition"—a long introduction to the book, plus a couple of essays on archeology and "Native American persistence," that serve as commentary and contextualization for the Newbery Award–winning classic of 1960.

What a pleasure it was, after slogging through the academic prose, to sit back and savor O'Dell's elegant narrative. The language is just right: a little formal, a little old-fashioned, as befits a young woman stranded for eighteen years on a small (35 sq. mi.) island off the coast of Santa Barbara in the early 1800s. His descriptions of the natural history of San Nicolas Island, with its otters and elephant seals, wild dogs and little foxes; octopus, abalone, and grunions; cormorants and gulls—and of course dolphins—are mostly spot-on. For example:

"Blue dolphins were leaping beyond the kelp beds. In the kelp otter were playing at the games they never tire of. And around me everywhere the gulls were fishing for scallops, which were numerous that summer. They grow on the floating kelp leaves and there were so many of them that much of the kelp near the reef had been dragged to the bottom. Still there were scallops that the gulls could reach, and taking them in their beaks they would fly far above the reef and let them drop. The gulls would then swoop down to the rocks and pick the meat from the broken shells. . . . Dodging this way and that I went to the end of the reef where the biggest fish live. With a sinew line and a hook made of abalone shell I caught two that had large heads and long teeth, but are good to eat. I gave one to Rontu [her dog] and on the way back to the canoe gathered purple sea urchins to use for dyeing."

In that one passage we see the young heroine, Karana's, ingenuity and industry, but also her love of this place that is the only home she's known.

The story is simple: After a tragic incident with Aleut otter hunters, Karana's people leave the island on a "white men's ship," but she and her younger brother remain behind. Soon he is killed by wild dogs, and she must break old gender-based taboos to survive. At one point she attempts to paddle a canoe to the mainland, but soon turns back because the boat proves no longer seaworthy; blue dolphins guide her to safety. For most of the next eighteen years she is alone, though she befriends several animals (it is a very sad passage when Rontu dies). At one point, the Aleut hunters return, and she at first reluctantly but then with pleasure spends time with a young woman who is traveling with them. They don't speak the same language, but they find other ways to communicate.

And finally, another ship arrives, and, "wish[ing] to be where people lived," she goes to the cove where they are anchored.

"Now that the white men had come back, I could not think of what I would do when I went across the sea, or make a picture in my mind of the white men and what they did there, or see my people who had been gone so long. Nor, thinking of the past, of the many summers and winters and springs that had gone, could I see each of them. They were all one, a tight feeling in my breast and nothing more."

But go with them she does. "For a long time I stood and looked back at the Island of the Blue Dolphins. The last thing I saw of it was the high headland. I thought of Rontu lying there beneath the stones of many colors, and of Won-a-nee [an otter she nursed to health], wherever she was, and the little red fox that would scratch in vain at my fence, and my canoe hidden in the cave, and of all the happy days."

Island of the Blue Dolphins is based on a true story, that of the "Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island" (see this link for an account of the historic woman and her people). In the real story, the woman died less than two months after arriving in San Diego and being taken in by the ship's captain and his wife, no doubt because she had no immunity to the diseases of the European mainland. No one spoke her language, so her story remains lost to time. But O'Dell was a historical novelist, and I believe (especially after reading the long critical introduction to this book) that he did his homework and presented her and the life she lived on the island as well as could possibly be done.

I'm delighted to have spent time with Karana on her beautiful island again.

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