As a kid, I was never one for survival or wilderness stories, which is why it took me so long to pick up a novel by Gary Paulsen—and why it has taken so long for me to get around to The Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell. But when I saw the beautiful new 50th Anniversary Gift Edition, complete with gorgeous watercolors by Ted Lewin, I knew it was finally time to read this classic children’s novel.
My conclusion is this: O’Dell’s novel is a much, much better version of Daniel Defoe’s plodding stranded-on-a-desert-island novel.
O’Dell’s prose is pretty simple, although I wouldn’t quite describe it as plain or sparse because his descriptions of the island, the animals and birds in particular, seem to come alive even without flowery prose. Every once in a while, the narrator does describe things in more poetic terms, and those beautiful images, scattered widely throughout the text, paint a picture of Karana’s island much more effectively than Defoe’s endless lists.
O’Dell has written Karana’s voice in simple language as well—reserved, she expresses her emotions in very understated terms. But this suits someone who has been left behind on an island with no human companionship for years. She has not forgotten her language, but her use of it has become fairly utilitarian overall. Even so, O’Dell is able to communicate the depth of Karana’s loneliness and grief, even using just brief phrases. Karana is not the kind of girl to go on and on about her emotions – she’s the kind of girl who will silently mourn the loss of her community while she builds her hut, hunts her food, and prepares to kill a pack of wild dogs. She’s the kind of girl who will try to kill a sea elephant and a devilfish—which is why she survives on the island by herself for so many years.
Despite the beauty of O’Dell’s simple prose, though, I think my appreciation for The Island of the Blue Dolphins also/mainly stems from the timing of when I (finally) read the novel. After living in the over-crowded urban sprawl of the Washington D.C. metro area for several years, I have been grateful to escape to the much more scenic Hudson River Valley—and into several “wilderness” novels that I probably wouldn’t have been drawn to even just a few years ago. I now have a much stronger desire to kum-bah-ya with nature on my own, away from all the Starbucks and Burger King drive-thrus. I know I would never survive out alone in the wilderness—I doubt I could even put up a tent on my own, let alone build a hut out of natural materials. And my definition of “hunting” involves combing through racks of clothes at the mall, not going after my dinner with a bow and arrows. (I’m well-aware that I would be naturally selected out of the human race if it weren’t for refrigerator and air-conditioning technology.) Yet the sturdy quality possessed by Karana and the protagonist of Gary Paulsen’s Woods Runner is exactly what I appreciate about these characters. As I read these survival novels, I realize how amazing it must feel to be so in tune with and so dependent on nature.
I just didn’t get that vibe, that luminous feeling of inter-connectedness, from reading Robinson Crusoe – Defoe’s narrator was a colonizer and a capitalist through-and-through; he tried to catalog and dominate the land. Karana must dominate certain aspects of nature in order to survive – she must be willing to kill the wild dogs that killed her little brother, the fish that she must eat, the sea elephants who tusks will provide her with sharp and strong spear tips. But she also respects and comes to love many of the animals on the island, and she stops to admire the beauty around her. She loves the island and says that it has been a place of happiness, despite the fact that she has been stranded their alone. Her ability to not only survive, but still enjoy dressing herself in garlands of flowers and skirts made of beautiful feathers illustrates that O’Dell’s character is much more sweet and personable than Defoe’s narrator—and therefore I could identify with Karana even though I am not nearly as tough as she.
I enjoyed this novel, feeling anxious and peaceful at different times as Karana faced wild animals, dealt with the forces of nature, and enjoyed the beauty and company of the more serene inhabitants of the island. The story allowed me to step outside myself and experience a beauty that is not often available to us today—the solemn beauty of (true) isolation.This post participates in the Weekly Geeks Challenge for February 20, 2011: Review a book that's less than 200 pages long.