Friday, November 23, 2007

Reader's Diary #312- Scott O'Dell: Island of the Blue Dolphins (FINISHED)

Back in August I posted what I felt were the top 20 glaring omissions in my "have read" list. Since then I've managed to knock off two of those: Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and now Scott O'Dell's Island of the Blue Dolphins. Fortunately, I enjoyed O'Dell's book much more than the Austen one (though I seem to be slipping Austen references into every other post for some reason).

The story of a girl all alone on an island in the Pacific, I was expecting a female version of Robinson Crusoe. Oddly, it reminded me just as much of Ayla from the Earth's Children Series (minus the gratuitous sex scenes). Whereas Robinson Crusoe was shipwrecked, Karana (of the Island of the Blue Dolphins) already had a familiarity with the place (she was deserted) and so Crusoe's dilemmas were often quite different. Ayla, on the other hand, shares a similar plot of breaking away from assigned gender roles in order to survive.

One aspect of this book nagged at me quite a bit: the cavalier way Karana reacts to the murder of her father. As her brother screams and screams and the women weep, Karana simply looks at his body in the water and says thinks "I knew he should not have told Captain Orlov his secret name." And while she says that the following night was "the most terrible time," I felt she was almost unbearably constrained in her account. Likewise, I found but a single sentence explaining her absent mother ("A few years ago my mother had died..."). Initially, I had three theories about Karana's perceived coldness:

1. It was O'Dell's writing style
2. It was meant to be a cultural aspect of Karana's tribe
3. It was meant to be a personality trait

Since Island of the Blue Dolphins is supposed to be Karana's first hand account, the first theory is hard to separate from the third. At first much of the tale seems to be rushed and skimmed over, not delving too much into emotions. Not having read any other works by O'Dell (I hadn't even heard of the sequel before), I didn't know how he typically treated events I'd classify as traumatic.

As for being a cultural attribute, there seems to be evidence both for and against this. That the women weeped and the brother screamed seemed to suggest that Karana was unique in her near nonchalance. Then again, that the people of the island never returned for her, seems to imply an indifference, or at the very least, a practical look at the value of human life. The story she is told later is that the ship sank shortly after landing in America and they were unable to find one suitable to return. Originally when they leave, Karana is onboard and notices that her brother was inadvertently left behind. She demands to go back but a storm is brewing and the others try to reassure her that they will return once the storm has passed. Karana jumps overboard and swims to the island. Why the boat goes all the way to America, instead of waiting out the storm, is never really explained.

Finally, most evidence pointed towards it simply being Karana. At the beginning she corrects her brother on his imagination, which seems to suggest she is not one given to emotions. Likely, this practical side helped her survive the lonely days on the island (once her brother is killed by wild dogs). Finally, and perhaps the most supportive argument comes from the change in her character. Jumping overboard is the first time she is shown to have any real connection to others and eventually more and more of this side comes through. After years of solitude, she makes friends with animals on the island (most notably one of the dogs), an Aleutian girl who visits the island with hunters, and is even shown to reminisce about her sister who left with the others; all a far cry from the indifferent girl at the beginning.

Despite never having a clear answer, the mystery gave the reading experience something extra, and I enjoyed it a great deal.


BookGal said...

I've read this one with kids a number of times and they normally hate it. They can't understand the main character and don't really care about her. Interesting how kids and adults read through different points of view.

John Mutford said...

Bookgal: My wife read this in elementary school too and remembers it as one of the first books she disliked. From an adult standpoint, I enjoyed it, though I should note (as I didn't above) that I didn't think it was flawless. Sometimes I found the plot a little too convenient (ex. the brother dying felt as if O'Dell needed to write him out as soon as possible so that he could get on with the isolated girl story that he originally set out to write.

668 aka neighbour of the beast said...

i read this as a kid and i loved it. i wonder what that says about me.

however, it always reminds me of going to the dentist as i had to get a tooth removed as a child and my dad bought me this book to make me feel better. and to try and make up for the fact that i had to miss the school trip to the planetarium.

Allison said...

I too remembering reading this as a kid and loving it. However I can't so much recall all the details, it might be nice to reread. Thanks for the reminder.

John Mutford said...

668: I guess that would sort of cement the memory wouldn't it? In a lower brow version of a similar memory, MAD Magazine reminds me of getting my wisdom teeth out. My girlfriend, got me one because she knew I liked them as a boy. No wonder I married her.

Allison: It's hard to say in hindsight if I'd have liked it as a kid or not. A child stranded alone on a deserted island does sound like something I'd have been into.

Anonymous said...

I'd read this as a kid and loved it too. Too many girl heroines were histronically inclined, it was nice to have one that wasn't.

John Mutford said...

Read Chris's positive review here.

John Mutford said...

Reviewed by Jenny here.