Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O’Dell

January 23, 2011 at 19:36 (Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Poorly Rated Books) (, , , , )


Oh, Pocahontas, Boudicca, Tarzan, Mowgli, Queequeg; and all you noble savages who must welcome Karana into your ranks! How you tickle the fancy and make the Great White Hunter feel so good about himself. Island of the Blue Dolphins is, of course, a variation on that proud and stiff-legged old theme, and one which displays the aboriginal girl in a way at once sympathetic, vaguely pantheistic and utterly interesting as a specimen of study. Perhaps the most enduring nineteenth century novel to emerge out of place and out of time and hang on by its fingernails to the shelves of the modern library! There is something objectionable about O’Dell’s portrayal about Karana and her island, in the air of a scientist studying something infinitely beneath him, and yet also the air of a tourist hoping to slum for a while in something purer and closer to the earth.

Unfortunately, this is the area in which Scott O’Dell’s efforts are chiefly located, and this is the main holding point of the book. Besides the character study of “how the natives manage things, being all savage and stuff,” and the terribly dry (but of course very important) explanation of the hunting and gathering practices of said natives – there is very little space left for a story. As the educational tool it undoubtedly was intended for, this book manages quite well. Young readers will walk away with a thorough knowledge of how to tame wild dogs and catch fish on desolate reefs. Heaven help those wrangled into studying it seriously. It is aimed at young readers who might not pick up on its patronising and cynical air, and yet it contains absolutely nothing that a younger reader might find appealing. Daring swordfights, cruel villains and stimulating adventure play second fiddle to creating textiles and learning the social dynamics of pack animals. As a story or a piece of literature, it is prosaic, egotistical and naught but a poor man’s Call of the Wild.


1 Comment

  1. David said,

    Interesting review, I’m glad I’ve read it. I remember always seeing this book on reading lists throughout grammar school and always feeling like it’s one I “should” read, because, darnit, it won some kind of award, right? In fact, I may have actually started to read it, but I know I certainly didn’t finish it, nor do I remember anything about it. After reading this review, though, I’m not sure I care one way or the other. The majority of books they made us children read in school lacked what we really needed (and wanted) from books.

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