Friday, September 16, 2011

Adventure classics -- Last woman left standing

Island of the Blue Dolphins

by Scott O’Dell


The protagonist of Island of the Blue Dolphins opens the book with a remembrance of the day sea otter hunters landed on her tiny island home. It was a day that would mark the beginning of the end for her entire people.

Scott O’Dell’s novel attempts to give a name and memory to the girl who would become known to history as the Lost Woman of San Nicolas. By 1835, conflict with the otter hunters had nearly wiped out the Native American tribe living on one of the Channel Islands off the coast of California. When news of the catastrophe reached the mainland, the Santa Barbara Mission sponsored a ship to resettle the surviving people of the island the Spaniards had called San Nicolas.

But when the ship left the island, the woman later baptized as Juana Maria (given the name Karana by O’Dell) wasn’t on it. The explanation for this oversight died with her, but the novel follows a story narrated decades later, in which she jumped overboard as the ship left and swam back to the island. O’Dell explains her action as an attempt to rescue her younger brother.

She soon found herself alone on the island, her brother killed by wild dogs and the mission lacking enough ships for a second rescue attempt. The brother’s existence and death were among the few facts that could be gleaned when another ship finally found her eighteen years later.

Island of the Blue Dolphins ends with the rescued Karana hoping to reunite at last with her family. But her real story was to end tragically. Isolated for centuries, possibly millennia, on their island, the remaining members of her tribe soon succumbed to diseases for which they had no immunity. And attempts to locate anyone who could speak her language, even among other Channel Island natives, proved futile.

Juana Maria, her true name unknown, became fatally ill only seven weeks after arriving on the California mainland.

Island of the Blue Dolphins, a Newbery Award winner in 1961, is the best known of Scott O’Dell’s many novels for children and teens. Its simple language and muted emotional tone make bearable the otherwise horrific plight of the abandoned young girl.

Only I wondered, rereading it recently for the first time in decades, whether the tone might also have been O’Dell’s attempt to write something the culture of the time considered an “Indian” voice.

But that was the beginning of the tumultuous 1960’s. By the end of the decade, Kiowa author N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn won the Pulitzer Prize and the gates were opening to a renaissance of literature about Native Americans written by Native authors.

(Next Friday -- Young David Balfour searches for his sole living relative, only to find a miserly uncle who doesn’t mind selling him into indentured servitude in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped.)


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