Sometimes when I return to things I loved as a child I find they’ve lost their luster for me. Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell is most definitely not one of those things.
I rediscovered this Newbery Medal winning book on a recent trip to Santa Barbara, but had forgotten, or perhaps never known, that the girl in the story was based on a real person who lived alone for eighteen years on one of the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara.
In life, as in the book, a tribe of natives thrived for many thousands of years on the island now known as San Nicholas. The island was blessed with an abundance of life – cormorants and pelicans, shellfish and finned-fish, dolphins, whales, and otters, to name a few.
It was the otters that brought Russian and Aleut (Alaskan) hunters to the island. If you have never felt an otter pelt, check out the Museum of Natural History in Santa Barbara. One swipe of your hand and you’ll understand the allure of this “soft gold” for the hunters.
But go to Monterey Bay Aquarium and stand in front of the sea otter exhibit, or find a place along the coast where the animals play, and you’ll see that these playful animals are so much more wonderful in life.
The otter hunters (at least in the book) tried to bargain with the islanders, offering a few beads for the bounty of otter pelts they’d spent weeks collecting. When the natives demanded a fairer deal, the hunters massacred many of the native men and sailed away.
About 1835 missionaries from Santa Barbara decided the natives should be relocated for their own safety, and they sent a ship to the island. In O’Dell’s fictionalized version of the story the girl was onboard ready to sail away with the rest of her people, when she discovered her little brother had gone back for his favorite fishing spear.
The winds had grown strong and the boat could not wait for her brother, so she jumped overboard and swam back to the island to care for her brother until the boat returned for them.
But eighteen years passed before she was found again, alone on the island. In reality, no one knows for sure what happened over those eighteen years. By the time she was rescued all of her people were gone and no one spoke her language.
What is known of her life alone on the island comes from what she could relay in sign language to her hosts back in Santa Barbara. According to historical accounts, she was very happy to be among people again, singing and dancing for visitors, enjoying human companionship and fruits and vegetables she had never before tasted.
In Island of the Blue Dolphins, O’Dell expands on fact, creating a tale of the dangers the girl surely faced, how she would have hunted and stored food, what happened to her brother, how she struggled against the elements and against loneliness.
If you want to tease fact from fiction, Wikepedia has an account of the true story, or what is known of it.
For wonderful fiction based on fact, read Island of the Blue Dolphins, written 50 years ago. Even after all these years it’s still a fantastic read for about 3rd grade up. Shoot, it’s a quick and wonderful read for anybody!