The Island of the Blue Dolphins (now San Nicolas, off the coast of California) was home to Karana’s tribe. When the Russian ‘Aleut’ fur traders arrive, her father seeks to negotiate otter hunting rights (the pelts were valuable). The deal goes wrong and most of the men in Karana’s tribe are slaughtered. Fearing further such catastrophes, the tribe decides to abandon the island using a White Man’s ship that arrives shortly afterward.
As the ship is leaving, Karana realizes her brother has been left behind. She hurls herself overboard and manages to swim ashore. Expecting to be rescued she sets about making a temporary shelter, but ends up staying for eighteen years! The wild dogs of the island prove to be the bane of her existence, influencing many aspects of her life.
O’Dell writes this speculative biography in the first person. We appreciate Karana’s goals, and see how she makes her life as comfortable as possible, by drawing on knowledge gained from life with her tribesmen. We also get a glimpse of her thinking as she struggles out from under the influence of tribal myths in order to act on her own judgment. Most notably, women could not use weapons on the belief they would invariably fail simply by virtue of being wielded by a woman. Karana not only decides to fashion weapons but chooses to use them against such formidable foes as bull elephant seals.
Young readers may need some assistance to grasp the grueling work required in fashioning a bone spear head, making a seaweed dress, or simply saving food. Through it all Karana maintains a certain dignity. She fashions a beautiful cape using animal skins and iridescent cormorant feathers. Her cape ultimately reached the Vatican! She even domesticates her arch enemy, the leader of the wild dogs.
Many web sites sensationalize this woman’s life, but much caution is advised. Some present her as a victim of ‘modern’ man, others as a victim of missionary men. While O’Dell’s simple focus on Karana’s survival is perhaps not as inspiring as it could be, he is above the pretentiousness of those who would rewrite history to insert their politically correct views.