I think it may have been my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Schneider, who read Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell to me.

I remember being enthralled with Karana's story of isolation on an island–not shipwrecked, but left behind when the tribe left. I don't know if I knew before I heard the story that it is based on the story of Juana Maria, a woman from the Nicoleño tribe.

In the book, conflicts with Russian fur trappers and Karana's tribe force the tribe to relocate to the California mainland. Karana jumps from the boat her tribe is leaving on to rescue her little brother. This is probably not what happened in real life. Karana's brother dies early in the story, the victim of wild dogs on the island. Karana decides to destroy the dogs but notices that one of them is different, more like a husky than the dogs she is used to. She manages to tame him and finally finds some companionship on the island.

Karana makes one friend in her years on the island (aside from her pets), a girl who accompanies the trappers who visit Karana's island periodically. But Karana is alone for 18 years before she is taken to the mainland, just like the real Juana Maria.

I did a little further reading online and found out that Juana Maria spoke a language that no one could understand. Multiple people from different tribes tried, but were unable to communicate with her. From the stories, she was happy at the Catholic Mission where she lived, but she passed away 7 weeks after being brought to the mainland.

Archeologists have found Juana Maria's whale-bone home on the island, as well as some caches of her belongings. They thought they found one of her secondary homes in a cave but digs have stopped because of tribes claiming the island as their ancestral land.

I think it's sad that she was unable to speak to people after living for so long by herself. I wish she had been able to live longer and maybe been able to share her story, but there is no way to change history. O'Dell wrote an amazing story and I think it would have made Juana Maria happy to hear.

If you haven't read this book yet, you really really should! I just found out today that there is a follow-up book, Zia. I have to get my hands on a copy.

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2 thoughts on “Island of the Blue Dolphins

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