As I noted on the main California page, I was somewhat hesitant to add Island of the Blue Dolphins to my list for California, because I was concerned about the possibility of a very dated view of Native Americans (it was first published in 1960). So I actually read an expanded version: Island of the Blue Dolphins: The Complete Reader’s Edition, which contains analysis by Sara L. Schwebel, as well as other supplementary information and analysis. Surprisingly, while this extra material was very interesting and added depth and background for me, the novel actually stood up to my concerns pretty well.
The main trap that O’Dell falls into is that of depicting the last of a noble but vanishing race. Much like Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (required reading growing up in upstate New York), Island of the Blue Dolphins centers around a “vanishing Indian” trope–the idea that the Native Americans of a particular tribe somehow died out and no longer exist. The main character Karana’s people are evacuated off the island to the mission in Santa Barbara, but she is left behind. She lives alone for many years, but eventually she is “rescued” and taken to the mainland where she hopes to be reunited with her people. O’Dell ends Karana’s narrative before she arrives on the mainland, but he makes it clear that her story is based on that of the Lone Woman of San Nicolas–a Native woman who was left behind on San Nicolas island (one of the Channel Islands). When the real Lone Woman was finally taken to Santa Barbara, her people had all “disappeared”–no one could even be found to translate for her. She was the “last of her race” and she died within weeks of leaving her pure, unblemished, primitive existence–contaminated by the more modern society she’d been brought into (or perhaps cholera as this site posits–an actual contamination rather than a philosophical one).
The truth of what happened to the Lone Woman’s people is much more complicated, but at least this trope is a positive and noble view of them. As Schwebel points out, the story that the Indians have disappeared or somehow died out continues to be fed by the lack of official recognition for many of the California tribes–their unofficial status means they are not “owed” any lands or benefits, and the lack of reservation lands also means they tend to fall beneath the radar of most of the general public. Locally, in Los Angeles county, the Tongva and Gabrielinos–whom my fourth grader learned about in school–are not federally recognized, and my son’s impression was that they were all gone (he looked at me as if I were crazy when I asked him if he had learned about where they were nowadays).
Note: While writing up this review, I came across another Goodreads review which recommends the book Dear Miss Karana by Eric Elliot, which sounds like a fantastic accompanying read for the O’Dell classic–and tackles the question of what really happened to the Nicoleño people, as well as the broader stereotype of the vanishing Indian.
The other trope O’Dell makes use of in Island of the Blue Dolphins is that of Robinson Crusoe; Karana is often referred to (by reviewers and even by O’Dell himself) as a female Crusoe. While I can obviously see the parallels–stranded on a remote island, themes of survival and creative problem solving, descriptions of native handiwork to make necessary items, and so forth–Schwebel points out that Karana’s attitude toward the island is fundamentally different than Crusoe’s. While he enslaves Friday, names himself king of the island, and sets about making improvements, Karana “moves from objecting to animal slaughter for capitalist gain (represented by the Russian captain) to refusing to kill animals even to make necessities such as tools and clothing.” This makes the book an early example of environmental awareness, which was one of a number of reasons for its popularity with school teachers throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
Occasionally, as sometimes happens with this kind of literary analysis, Schwebel seems to go a bit overboard in reading into her beloved source material. She asserts that the name Karana echoes the name Crusoe–“to those paying attention, the similarity in syllables and sounds can’t be missed.” However, I find that a big stretch, personally. Yes, they both have an initial hard C/K sound, but O’Dell himself “cited as a source for Karana a teenage Tarascan girl named Carolina who helped clean the cottage he and Dorsa rented during a summer stay in central Mexico during the late 1950s.” To me, Carolina sounds a heck of a lot more like Karana than Crusoe does… must be I’m just not paying attention…
Where I found Schwebel’s supplementary information most helpful was in discussing O’Dell’s research–which parts of Karana’s story are historically-based, and which came from his imagination. She also discusses his taking secondary sources at face value in his research and the idea that at the time there were not many primary sources for him to consult. Nowadays we have a variety of first person texts written by Native Americans themselves. At the time O’Dell was writing Island of the Blue Dolphins, however, even a white man writing from the perspective of a Native American girl was extremely rare. In many ways it’s impressive that his writing has mostly held up over time. My point though (and Schwebel’s) is that he didn’t have a whole lot of primary sources to choose from, and he didn’t really have any basis for questioning the veracity of the secondary sources he had.
One of O’Dell’s main sources for the story of the Lone Woman was a story written by Emma Hardacre, called, “Eighteen Years Alone,” first published in Scribner’s Monthly in 1880. Hardacre was a professional journalist and “had access to eyewitnesses, local documents, and scientifically minded people who knew San Nicolas Island well.” Her account, which includes dramatic flourishes such as the assertion that the Lone Woman “voluntarily breasted the waves, and fought death” by jumping overboard when the community was evacuated, became the accepted account of the Lone Woman, despite the fact that several of the key players who should have been interviewed spoke Spanish or Native American languages, none of which Hardacre spoke, resulting in a less-than-complete account which she probably filled in as she saw fit.
I don’t want to do too much more analysis here, but there are a couple of other things I want to note.
Since we have already read Alaska, and have learned a bit about the Aleutian people and their interactions with the Russians in And She Was, I was particularly interested in how they were depicted in Island of the Blue Dolphins. I don’t remember hearing before that the Russians dominated the coast quite so far south as the Channel Islands off Los Angeles. But I found O’Dell’s descriptions of the Nicoleños’ burial sea cave reminiscent of the Aleutian caves in And She Was.
The other tidbit that I want to mention is the idea of the use of two names – one public and one private. According to Schwebel, “There are no ethnographic accounts of the Nicoleño people available to scholars.” In other words, we have no way of knowing if this was an actual belief or not, and it is likely something that O’Dell invented. However, this belief shows up in Like a River Glorious with the California Native character Muskrat. The other characters speculate that Muskrat is not his real name, and say that his people have two names – a public one and a private one.
There were also parallels to the Little House books, particularly in the detailed descriptions of how daily tasks were performed, what resources were used, etc. This kind of rich historical information is so interesting to me. The novel also features a strong female character who doesn’t pine for a man. It’s interesting to note that O’Dell got recommendations from publishers that he change Karana to a male character, and from editors that she have a love interest.
Although it doesn’t seem to be taught very often any more, and in fact it’s not one that I ever read in school, it filled a void during the 1970s and 1980s and was commonly taught during that time, as a multicultural text, a text with a strong female main character, and one which taught environmental awareness.
Island of the Blue Dolphins was viewed as contributing to the multicultural agenda because it presented, in a positive light, a fully realized Native American who narrates her own tale. While public debate about cultural outsiders’ ability to tell an “authentic” tale of racial and ethnic others raged on university campuses—perhaps most famously around William Styron’s Pulitzer Prize–winning The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967)—it barely touched the K-12 world.
As for my challenge… honestly I feel I got a bit side-tracked by the historical context, but part of the challenge was to learn about the history of each state, so I’d say it fits the bill. Maybe I’ll have to do another post at some point with more of the setting and landscape quotes from the book, like this one, which makes me want to figure out what kind of birds these were:
Birds were plentiful, too. There were many hummers which can stand still in the air and look like bits of polished stone and have long tongues to sip honey with. There were blue jays, which are very quarrelsome birds, and black-and-white peckers that pecked holes in the yucca stalks and the poles of my roof, even in the whale bones of the fence. Red-winged blackbirds also came flying out of the south, and flocks of crows, and a bird with a yellow body and a scarlet head, which I had never seen before. A pair of these birds made a nest in a stunted tree near my house. It was made from strings of the yucca bush and had a small opening at the top and hung down like a pouch. The mother laid two speckled eggs which she and her mate took turns sitting on. After the eggs hatched, I put shreds of abalone under the tree and these she fed her young. The young birds were not like their mother and father, being gray and very ugly, but anyway, I took them from the nest and put them in a small cage that I made of reeds.
But for now, I’m moving on…