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Island of the Blue Dolphins
The Complete Reader's Edition
By Scott O'Dell, Sara L. Schwebel
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
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One month before Scott O'Dell's Island of the Blue Dolphins went on sale for the first time, on February 18, 1960, Houghton Mifflin's Hardwick Moseley wrote to the author to wish him and his wife, Dorsa, a happy New Year: "I hope that you both enjoyed happy holidays, and that the sixties will be delightful, happy and prosperous. Maybe Houghton Mifflin Company will take care of the prosperity part. We shall try very hard." As the tone of the letter suggests, O'Dell and Moseley were old friends. They had met because O'Dell was book columnist for the Los Angeles Mirror and book editor for the Los Angeles Daily News, and Moseley, Houghton Mifflin's West Coast sales representative, had wanted his books to receive good press. A mutual delight in literature and frequent opportunities to socialize in Los Angeles solidified the men's friendship. At the time, O'Dell had a number of publications to his name, including three novels, Woman of Spain: A Story of Old California (1934), Hill of the Hawk (1947), and The Sea Is Red (1958), as well as the nonfiction Man Alone (1953), written with William Doyle, and Country of the Sun: Southern California, an Informal History and Guide (1957). He had led an eclectic life as a former Hollywood man, veteran, journalist, novelist, and amateur historian — O'Dell was all these things during the 1940s and '50s. But he was not a children's author.
Yet Moseley's New Year's greetings promised O'Dell that, "if the B.D.'s [Island of the Blue Dolphins] does as well as we expect you will be one of the best known writers in the children's book world." The words proved prophetic. O'Dell's novel was a commercial success from the start, selling more copies than equivalent titles for child readers in the United States during its opening spring sales season. That fall, it captured the Newbery Medal, a coveted prize awarded by the American Library Association to "the most distinguished work of U.S. literature written for children." A British edition of Island of the Blue Dolphins appeared in 1961, and the first translations of the book followed. Just a few years later, in 1964, children and their families in the United States and abroad watched O'Dell's protagonist, Karana, come alive on the silver screen. By 1972, the novel's international reputation was solidified when O'Dell won the Hans Christian Andersen Award, a prestigious prize presented to one living author "whose complete works have made a lasting contribution to children's literature." This biennial prize, granted by the International Board on Books for Young People, has been conferred on a U.S. author only five times since its inception in 1956.
By any measure, then, Island of the Blue Dolphins ranks among the most important children's books of the twentieth century. In 2015, there were more than 8.5 million copies of it in print in the United States. The novel has surpassed in sales all other Newbery Medal-winning books and all other children's historical novels in the United States. But perhaps more importantly, Island of the Blue Dolphins has long been a staple of the K-12 classroom. Statistics are difficult to obtain, given the absence of a national curriculum in the United States, but one way to measure the novel's reach is by examining the number of Island of the Blue Dolphins quizzes taken by students using Accelerated Reader, a popular commercial literacy program used in more than one-third of American schools and in sixty countries worldwide. In 2015, fifty-five years after its original publication, Island of the Blue Dolphins was selected as pleasure reading by students in every grade between first and twelfth who took Accelerated Reader quizzes, and it ranked as the seventeenth most frequently read work among fourth grade students using the program (fourth graders who took the quizzes collectively read more than 140,000 distinct titles). Accelerated Reader includes quizzes for a range of children's books, including current bestselling series. According to the program's staff, Island of the Blue Dolphins is one of a very small number of classics that students elect to read year after year. What explains the novel's longevity and global reach?
Island of the Blue Dolphins capitalizes on a true story that has long fascinated the public, a story that became the special province of children only after the 1960 appearance of O'Dell's novel. Island of the Blue Dolphins, readers will recall, narrates the life of Karana, the twelve-year-old daughter of Chowig, chief of Ghalas-at, the sole village on the Island of the Blue Dolphins (San Nicolas Island). The novel opens with the arrival of a ship with red sails, captained by a Russian and carrying Aleut sea otter hunters. Karana and her peers have never seen a large sailing vessel, but the adults have. Years previous, readers are told, they were tricked into hunting sea otter day and night for a demanding Russian captain. This time, the community knows to negotiate its terms. Nonetheless, disaster strikes. When the hunters attempt to leave without paying for their catch, Karana's father moves to prevent their treachery. Twenty-seven men, Chief Chowig included, are killed, leaving only eight able-bodied males standing. The newly appointed chief ensures the community's survival by instructing women to perform tasks traditionally reserved for men. Hunger is averted, but social tensions multiply to the extent that the chief realizes that another solution must be found. He sets off on a long journey to the mainland. Nearly a year later, a European ship arrives, captained by a man who informs the Ghalas-at people that their chief has sent for them. All climb aboard, hurrying to set sail before a storm materializes. Once on deck, however, Karana realizes that her younger brother is missing. When her pleas to return go unheeded, she flings herself into the sea. Karana expects the ship to return within weeks, but it never does. Long before she registers this fact, however, her brother is killed by wild dogs, and she is left alone. Mastering her fear and drawing on her strength as a Ghalas-at woman, she learns to construct and wield weapons to protect herself from danger. Animals provide her with companionship and purpose that enable her to survive eighteen years of solitude emotionally intact. When otter hunters and a Spanish priest appear nearly two decades later, Karana allows herself to be discovered. She misses the sound of human voices and longs to be reunited with her sister, even if it means leaving the home of her people and her ancestors. She climbs aboard the ship with the captain and crew and sails for Santa Barbara, bringing with her an otter cape, a cormorant skirt, a necklace of beads, three baskets, a cage holding her two young pet birds, and her dog, Rontu-Aru.
The story of Karana is in essence the story of a nineteenth-century Nicolena who posthumously became known as the Lone (or Lost) Woman of San Nicolas Island. In 1853, after spending eighteen solitary years on the most remote of California's Channel Islands, the Lone Woman was brought to Santa Barbara, California, where she was conditionally baptized Juana Marfa. But because the Lone Woman died after only seven weeks on the mainland, she was never able to tell her story, as no one who spoke her island tongue could be found during that short period. Nevertheless, accounts of her ordeal abound. The people of San Nicolas — the island was so named by Sebastian Vizcaino, who sailed past it in 1602 — had no direct contact with Europeans until the beginning of the nineteenth century. The island, twenty-two square miles in size, was at a sixty-mile remove from Spanish California and considerably farther from Russian California's nearest settlement. But geographical distance shrank during the nineteenth century, when sailing ships began to dot the Pacific as people attempted to draw profit from the sea. As demand for otter furs rose and animal populations were depleted near the coasts of Alaska and Northern California, the Russian American Company (RAC) began sending its Alaska Native hunters, accompanied by Russian overseers, to California's Channel Islands. At this time, archaeologist Steven J. Schwartz estimates, the population of San Nicolas Island probably numbered between two hundred and three hundred people. But by 1814, the community was devastated. An RAC ship, the Il'mena, deposited a group of Kodiak Islanders to hunt sea otter on the island. These Alaska Natives were conscripted workers laboring for the colonial power that controlled their homeland (the RAC was a private mercantile enterprise operating under royal oversight and was granted monopolistic rights to the fur trade in Russia's North American possessions). Conflict between the Kodiak hunters and the Nicolenos erupted, and while the Alaska Natives were likely outnumbered, they were equipped with superior weapons. At the end of the skirmish, most of the Nicolenos were dead. This 1814 conflict is fictionalized in Island of the Blue Dolphins: Karana and her sister witness from the cliff the battle that kills their father, the chief, as well as most of the village's other men. In O'Dell's tale, the Ghalas-at community leaves for the California mainland approximately one year later.
The historical record suggests that the Nicoleno population continued to decline after the massacre, undoubtedly as a result of exposure to new diseases (otter hunters continued to frequent the island). Just over twenty years after the 1814 catastrophe, a ship from Mexican California, the Peor es Nada, arrived at San Nicolas with the purpose of removing the much-diminished island population. The ship's crew encountered a straggling community, likely numbering fewer than twenty individuals. The island Natives were brought on board and taken to San Pedro, Los Angeles's port, where they were placed in the care of local, non-Native, Catholic families. For unknown reasons, however, one adult Nicolena was left behind during this otherwise wholesale removal of the population to mainland California. Some accounts indicate that she was left on the island with a child (or two young children). The Lone Woman's abandonment on the remote Channel Island was widely known along the California coast; newspapers reported the fact as early as the 1840s. Nonetheless, no effort was made to collect her. It was not until 1852 that a crew of European Americans and California Indians, led by George Nidever, set out to find the Lone Woman as a side task to their sea otter hunting. They eventually succeeded, bringing her to Santa Barbara in 1853, eighteen years after the rest of her community had been removed from the island. She was middle aged and in good health when she arrived, and she had with her a number of items of her manufacture, including clothing made of cormorant feathers, a necklace, needles, a fishhook, and a bone knife.
The story of the Lone Woman's eighteen years of solitary survival was so compelling to nineteenth- and early twentieth-century readers that it circulated in popular periodicals in the United States and beyond nearly continuously between 1847 and the 1920s; it then became a popular subject in amateur and academic scientific writings for many decades. In fact, the narrative of the Lone Woman's extraordinary experience never faded completely from public view, particularly in California, where the story had always appeared with greatest frequency. As a newspaperman who lived and worked in Los Angeles, O'Dell would have encountered the story (or perhaps encountered it again) in the postwar years. In 1950, shortly before the hundredth anniversary of the Lone Woman's arrival in Santa Barbara, the most influential account of her life was republished, locally, in booklet form. Emma Hardacre's "Eighteen Years Alone," which first appeared in Scribner's Monthly in 1880, told the entire narrative of the Lone Woman's life, from her people's violent confrontation with Alaska Natives to her removal from the island, conditional baptism, and death in Santa Barbara. Shortly after Hardacre's account was republished in Santa Barbara, the California Academy of Science's natural history magazine, Pacific Discovery, featured an article on the Lone Woman's people, written by archaeologist Clement W. Meighan. His essay about the Nicolenos retold the story of the Lone Woman but noted that "details of the woman's life on the island can never be known" because she died before anyone who spoke her language could be found. Given the Nicolena's extraordinary life, Meighan observed, the Lone Woman "could no doubt have told a story which would eclipse Daniel Defoe's tale of Robinson Crusoe." O'Dell had a clear opening.
SCOTT O'DELL'S SOURCES
O'Dell's research on the Lone Woman actually predated his creative work on Island of the Blue Dolphins by several years. He first narrated the tale of her eighteen years of solitude in Country of the Sun: Southern California, an Informal History and Guide (1957). Ostensibly a history (an evidence-based narrative that strives for objectivity), Country of the Sun's breezy narrative reads like the newspaperman's account that it is. Yet a comparison of Country of the Sun and Island of the Blue Dolphins shows O'Dell's concern for genre expectations: history should be objective and factual, whereas fiction can imagine beyond the confines of evidence. Country of the Sun's two-and-a-half-page narration of the Lone Woman's story thus adheres closely to the sources that O'Dell consulted: turn-of-the-century accounts of the Lone Woman, such as the one written by Emma Hardacre. This doesn't mean that everything in Country of the Sun's narrative is true, however. Early accounts of the story published in periodicals offered some colorful details. For example, when O'Dell writes about the 1835 removal of the Nicolenos to San Pedro, on board the Peor es Nada, he notes that the Lone Woman "leaped into the sea and swam back to shore because her child had been left on the island." This widely reported fact is almost certainly mythic, but it appeared consistently in historical accounts, and O'Dell likely assumed it was true. We can see this by the way he handled the detail in Island of the Blue Dolphins. When O'Dell moved from history writing to fiction, he felt free to invent details. In the novel, Karana flings herself overboard and swims ashore in order to find a forgotten younger brother, not her own child. This reason was more appropriate for young readers, and O'Dell felt strongly that a mother wouldn't, or shouldn't, forget her own offspring.
If O'Dell was concerned about accuracy in his history writing, he was concerned about creativity in his fiction writing. He omits from Island of the Blue Dolphins but includes in Country of the Sun the fact that the American sea otter hunter George Nidever found footprints made by the Lone Woman in the San Nicolas sand in 1852, a sign that the rumors were correct: the island Native was still alive more than a decade and a half after her abandonment. This detail, repeated in many nineteenth-century accounts of the Lone Woman, echoes the similar discovery of footprints in the sand by Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe on his (supposedly) deserted island. O'Dell determined that including the footprints in Island of the Blue Dolphins would too obviously parallel Robinson Crusoe and thereby open him to accusations of literary derivation. So he decided that it was better to leave the detail out, even though it was true. O'Dell was concerned, then, with maintaining a reputation for accuracy (in his journalistic history writing) and creativity (in his literary fiction).
Although a history, Country of the Sun contains no footnotes or bibliography, just a short list of books suggested for further reading. Island of the Blue Dolphins is more helpful in pointing to texts O'Dell may have consulted. Its author's note mentions by name two historical sources, one historical person, and two museums with holdings from San Nicolas Island. Specifically listed are the "reports" of Captain Hubbard (a mariner) and the "records" of Captain Nidever (a sea otter hunter), as well as the individuals Father Gonzalez (one of three priests residing at Santa Barbara Mission in 1853), Bernice Eastman Johnston (a longtime docent and researcher at the Southwest Museum of the American Indian in Los Angeles), and Fletcher Carr (a retired curator who had worked at the San Diego Museum of Man). Unfortunately, none of O'Dell's research notes or bibliographies have been found. Nonetheless, the above information, combined with textual details from Island of the Blue Dolphins and (admittedly inconsistent) interviews O'Dell granted after the book's publication, provides a good indication of the author's likely sources.
Excerpted from Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell, Sara L. Schwebel. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of ContentsPreface
Composition of Island of the Blue Dolphins
Text of the First Edition of Island of the Blue Dolphins
Chapters Excised from Island of the Blue Dolphins Drafts
Commentary and Contextualization
Archaeology, Island of the Blue Dolphins, and the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island
René L. Vellanoweth
A Counterstory of Native American Persistence