Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell is a book I read as a child, and I have fond memories of it. So I bought it for my niece but decided to read it one last time since books have a habit of changing on you as you age. Here’s what I think of it now.
Island of the Blue Dolphins is about a young girl surviving alone on her home island after her family and friends have been shipped away.
All my reviews have spoilers.
To start this Island of the Blue Dolphins book review, I need to mention that my copy of the book has an introduction written by Newbery Medalist Lois Lowry. I wish it didn’t. The intro gives too much away about the plot and the ending of the story. I had forgotten that the girl’s brother dies. I had forgotten who finds her on the island in the end. I had forgotten so many things, and then Lowry tells me what happens right in the intro! I’ll have to tell my niece not to read the intro, or the story will be ruined for her. Thanks a lot, Lowry. I wish it could have been the conclusion instead of the introduction.
While I’m on a roll about what I don’t like in the beginning, I’ll mention that I didn’t like it when the protagonist talked to me, the reader, directly at the start of chapter two. It reads:
Perhaps I should tell you about our island so you will know how it looks and where our village was and where the Aleuts camped for most of the summer.
Then it goes on to describe the island. Don’t tell me you’re going to describe it before you describe it, please. Weird. Luckily, that’s the only part in the whole book where she does that. (That I noticed, anyway.)
CHARACTER AND SETTING DESCRIPTION
There’s something calming about Island of the Blue Dolphins. It’s a slow moving, day-to-day, season-to-season, kind of book which takes you out of your busy modern day life and into the life, well, the life of an island dweller. Your life is no longer about, “I have to hit the grocery store while I’m on my break and call the doctor, and Timmy needs a new pair of shoes for basketball, and we need more cat food, and, and-” Calm down. Your life is now about collecting abalones from the sea and listening to the waves lap at the shore.
The descriptions create this sense of calm. I love names like “Coral Cove” and Karana’s talk of weaving skirts and watching birds, and the author does a good job of always staying in character with descriptions, such as comparing the sky to a blue shell and fish fins to kelp. There’s never a moment where we’re outside of Karana’s world.
Even more calming than the setting descriptions is the way our young first-person protagonist thinks and speaks. Karana has a deliberate, down to earth way of speaking. Simple sentences and words are good for this reading age group. It makes the reading easy, and it also falls in line with the character. And what a great character she is. She is more rational than myself and most the people I know. She makes choices but doesn’t beat herself up with regret when they don’t turn out well such as when she chose to let her brother try and reach a canoe instead of chasing after him the moment she realized he was gone. She later finds he’s been killed by dogs. I would have felt guilty for not looking for him earlier. She never says a word of guilt. She’s sad. She’s angry at the dogs, but there’s no guilt. Frankly, guilt is pointless and one can’t turn back time, and I’m glad I don’t have to sit through an internal monolog of her abusing herself. She also doesn’t regret burning down the village huts even though she later has to rebuild a house for herself. I’d say if I have to be stuck on an island with only one character for the length of a novel, I’m happy it’s Karana. She’s strong, rational, and most importantly, not annoying.
She does obsess a little too much about the white men coming back but it’s understandable and other than that, she’s focused on her survival. Her constant gathering of survival stuff is my favorite part of this book. It’s interesting to read. Maybe there’s some deep embedded, squirrelly part of our DNA that creates this desire in us to make nests and hoard food to see us through winter. Maybe that’s why I get such satisfaction from reading about her preparations. Maybe I’m secretly a prepper at heart. She has hidden canoes filled with dried food; I have a cupboard with three bottles of Listerine and four cans of Barbasol shaving cream. We’re ready.
From an amateur writer’s standpoint, I’d say there’s a lot of wassiness in this book. We beginners are often told to avoid the word “was” because the argument is we should be looking for stronger verbs to use. Of course, this is somewhat controversial advice since there is nothing inherently wrong with the word “was.” However, I did notice it’s excessive use in some parts of this book. For example:
That night I climbed onto the rock to sleep. It was flat on top and wide enough for me to stretch out. Also it was so high from the ground that I did not need to fear the wild dogs while I was sleeping. I had not seen them again since the day they had killed Ramo, but I was sure they would soon come to my new camp.
Now did I notice all the “was” words because I’ve heard the advice to look out for them or was it because O’Dells use really was excessive? I dunno. It didn’t seem to hurt the overall effect of the story for me, so I won’t harp on it.
QUESTIONABLE PLOT ELEMENTS
Page 96 reads:
The tides had almost buried the canoe, and I labored many days to dig it out of the sand.
Does it really take days to dig out a canoe? I feel like Scott O’Dell didn’t dig in the sand very often. His timing is off. I could dig out an almost buried canoe in an afternoon, tops, but it seems to take Karana forever. It takes her many days to do a lot of things, some justified, some not. I’ll give O’Dell the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the canoe wasn’t the sole focus of her day, but still, some of the timelines made me question whether they were just thrown out there arbitrarily.
Also, she sure does discover a lot of new caves on this tiny island where she’s lived her whole life. One would think she would know every crevice by heart at this point. Doesn’t seem very likely that she’d be constantly discovering new things about it, but she does, one new cave after another, until it got to the point where I couldn’t keep track. I eventually just had to tell myself that the island was bigger than I had originally imagined and I left it at that. I guess you could say I don’t want this book to have problems. It’s nostalgic for me, you know? So I was perhaps a forgiving reader.
Conclusion to the Island of the Blue Dolphins Book Review
A story about one person alone on an island sounds boring, but you add in a bunch of animal friends, island caves, and survival necessities and it’s a pretty good read. The threat of Aleuts, the hope of the ship’s return, wild dogs, it all gives the story tension and intrigue. There’s just enough drama to keep things interesting.
The high points are watching her survival skills grow, and overall, I really like this book. It’s beautiful. I kept bracing myself for this book to get ugly, but the author never lets anything too horrible happen to Karana, well, except in the beginning when he kills off most her family, but she seemed to move on from that easily enough. A story about someone with resilience and good mental health is a breath of fresh air compared to some of the crazy, obsessive drugged-up first-person narrators I’ve been reading too much of lately.
Also, Karana’s love for animals and her desire to no longer kill them in the end was sweet. (Although she conveniently didn’t include fish in her list of animals to not kill. The veganism is weak with this one. Thankfully.)
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