Revisiting Your Sixth-Grade Bookshelf: "Island Of The Blue Dolphins"

I’m not saying you HAVE to listen to nothing but “Survivor” by Destiny’s Child while you read this, but it really ties the article together.
Publish date:
August 23, 2013
books, nostalgia

Back in the day, before shit got real and kids started falling in love with vampires in post-apocalyptic cities while competing to the death, wilderness survival stories quietly dominated bookshelves. In a way, I suppose they’re similar: I mean, it’s unlikely Katniss Everdeen would have survived some of the challenges of the Hunger Games arena without an innate knowledge of how to survive in the wild.

I LOVED wilderness survival books. LOVED them. It’s a bit weird how much I hate camping and nature in general considering how many times I read books like "Hatchet" by Gary Paulsen or "My Side of the Mountain" by Jean Craighead George. Oh, quiet, thoughtful, resourceful Sam Gribley, you were my first literary crush. You taught me so many things, like the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning (for an entire month after I read that book, I gave our woodstove the side eye) or how to make pancakes from acorn flour or how to train a falcon to do my bidding.

Sometimes when I’m feeling particularly self-involved and good about myself, I remember that if there was a real zombie apocalypse or any type of scenario where I would be forced to live off the land to survive, I would not be capable of doing it. I have told my boyfriend multiple times that if some sort of post-apocalyptic event happens like a meteor hit or supervolcano eruption, and I don’t die in the first massive deathwave, then I’m totally going to mercy kill myself and also probably our children.

The entire time I read "The Road," all I could think about was how terrible that existence seemed, to just survive until something like a pebble in the beat-up boots you stole from a dead person causes gangrene and then you die. That is not a life I would want to live, no matter how many acorn pancakes I can make.

I think I’ve gotten a little off-track here. I’m only pointing that if I was thrust into a situation similar to one that Karana from "Island of the Blue Dolphins," I would be stone-cold dead before the next full moon.

Let us sum up:

Karana is a 12-year-old girl living on an island in the Pacific Ocean. I know right? Jelly times a thousand. She’s part of the tribe who lives there, and things seem to be going really well for them with their spears and canoes and patriarchal society until the Aleuts come along to hunt otters.

The Aleuts kill like a million otters (uggggh) and then when they try to skimp on paying the tribe, the chief is all like NOPE. So they battle against the native folks and kill a bunch of them, too, including the chief, who is Karana’s father.

After so many men were killed, the new chief, Kimki, said women have to do some of the work that the men did, like hunting for food. But this is an issue for the remaining dudes, who say that now that the women do everything, the women look down on the men. This is sort of like how I feel when my boyfriend forgets to take out the trash. You had ONE JOB, boyfriend! ONE JOB! And now I have to do it for you so yeah, I’m gonna temporarily look down on you until you remember to take the trash out when you leave to go to work.

So anyway, Kimki decides to travel to America to make a place for his dwindling tribe. Some white men show up a few months later, courtesy of Kimki, to take the tribe back to the States for assimilation or whatever. They all pile into the boat and set sail for American freedom when Karana realizes her six-year-old brother, Ramo, has been left behind.

She pleads to go back for him and they refuse, saying they’ll come back another time. Which is kind of messed up. I mean, he’s SIX. I know some six-year-olds who can’t even put together a Lego set properly. This isn’t like some mom letting her kid ride the NYC subway by himself. He’s ALONE on an ISLAND in the middle of the OCEAN.

Karana apparently agrees with me, flings herself off the ship and swims to shore. She’s not too mad about leaving the ship -- she assumes one will come to rescue them soon. She’s mostly mad that her skirt of yucca fibers was ruined by the swim. I know that feel, Karana. One time I accidentally dropped an extra-buttery piece of popcorn on an expensive silk dress.

Commence Survivor: "Island of the Blue Dolphins" edition. Except like the very next day, Ramo is killed by wild dogs. And now Karana is all on her own. She sets up some temporary shelter so she herself won’t be killed by wild dogs, too, and then starts making weapons. The only problem is that her tribe was all like, “So if ladies make weapons, shit’s goin’ down.” Here are some things the tribe said would happen if a woman made a weapon:

  1. The four winds would blow in from the four directions of the world and smother her. (WHAT.)
  2. The earth would tremble and bury her beneath the falling rocks. (That’s not how earthquakes work, brah.)
  3. The sea would rise over the island in a terrible hood. (Or tsunamis either.)
  4. The weapon would break in her hands at the moment when her life was in danger. (OK, this is totally valid. I could see this happening to me because I put it together incorrectly, much like how the majority of my Ikea furniture is just on the cusp of totally collapsing.)

Anyway, Karana is in a deep depression after, you know, everyone in her life being killed or abandoning her. She ekes out a life by eating abalones and spearing fish for about 6 months, and only perks up when summer comes, which is when she thinks the ship will return for her due to the good weather. However, it doesn’t. She’s still stuck on the island with a pack of bloodthirsty wild dogs. Finally, she decides to bounce.

OK, OK, I know that at this point, you’re thinking “Life alone on a tropical paradise? What are you doing, girl? WHERE ARE YOU GOING?” But I’m pretty sure even the most hardcore survivalist of us would give up after the 6th month of eating nothing but dried abalone.

Karana grabs a canoe and starts off to sea. Unfortunately, there’s a leak. Like three of them, actually, so she’s forced to go back to the island. On the way back, she’s greeted by a pod of dolphins. In related news, I can’t think of anything in this world I’d like more than to be greeted by a pod of dolphins. Ashley Perks Dream Life #36.

After she returns to the island, she’s resigned herself to the idea that this is not a temporary situation. She starts building a permanent shelter out of whale ribs, poles and kelp, she cooks fish on a rock, makes a basket out of reeds, sews some sealskin belts and shoes and pretty much owns this whole “left on an island” thing. She even adopts the leader of the wild dogs, names him Rontu, and they become the best of friends.

Most of the book focuses on Karana just making a life for herself. She kills octopi, explores the island and basically just gets shit done. When the Aleuts come back for otter, she gets all secret ninja and hides from them. But she makes a lady Aleut friend, they trade jewelry and then she gets super sad when the girl has to leave.

Similar to this one time when I went on summer vacation and met this girl there and we hung out and traded friendship bracelets, but this was during pre-widespread Internet days so we couldn’t look each other up on AOL when we got home and we never saw each other again.

After her human friend leaves, Karana befriends a wounded otter (Ashley Perks Dream Life #58) and some birds and then decides not to kill any more animals or birds because they are “like people, too, though they do not talk the same or do the same things. Without them, the earth would be an unhappy place.”

PETA, why have you not made this girl your new spokesperson?

Rontu dies of old age (uggggh, so sad) and Karana adopts his puppy son, whom she names Rontu-Aru. She also braves earthquakes and a tsunami (though not caused by her making weapons, men!) before finally a ship comes sailing into the cove. Karana dresses up in all her fanciest clothes - her cormorant feather skirt, the necklace from her friend, earrings, an otter cape and makes tribal markings on her face, conveniently making the sign of her tribe that means she’s unmarried.

All the single ladies, Karana. All the single ladies. Look, 18 years of no sex? I’d be making some Let’s Bone Right Now tribal markings, too.

She grabs Rontu-Aru and makes her way down to the beach. The ship is there to hunt otter, but there’s a priest there and he makes the other men sew a proper dress for Karana to wear. Even though she doesn’t really like wearing this piece of clothing that covers every part of her, she wears it anyway, ready to become a proper civilized person among other people. They head to America and she learns that the original ship that carried all of her people sunk in a storm, so she’s now the last member of her tribe.

Let’s get this straight: She swims back to the island to save her brother. He dies. She’s stuck on an island alone for 18 years, battling nature things that are trying to kill her. When she’s finally discovered, she finds out that absolutely everyone she knows is dead.

This is the point where I would just throw my hands up and check out of life completely, but the best thing about "Island of the Blue Dolphins" is how awesome Karana is. She never wavers in her belief that she can survive. Laying down and giving up? Not an option. Even when the wild dogs are after her, even when her canoe springs 3 leaks in the middle of the ocean, even when she’s nearly dragged into the ocean by an octopus, even when she clings to rocks as a tsunami slams against her. That’s the complete and total definition of a badass.

I don’t remember what my thinking was when I first read "Island of the Blue Dolphins," but if I had to guess, I was probably enthralled by dolphins being in the title. Can we please just remember this was around Free Willy time and I was obsessed with all things ocean life? Like I totally wanted to become a marine biologist and swim with whales and dolphins. We talked about horse girls last time, but I am copping to being the dolphin girl in my class, replete with stacks of Lisa Frank folders decorated with happy rainbow dolphins playing with beach balls.

The book, written by Scott O'Dell, is sort of based on the true story of the Lone Woman of San Nicolas, who survived on the island of San Nicolas for 18 years by herself in the mid-1800s. She was found with a dog and a skirt of cormorant feathers -- also known as Ashley Perks Dream Life #89.