This book is apparently based on a true story, yet I am not sure which portions are fiction. I am assuming that the general plot is true whereas the other details were made for the book.
A fleet of Aleuts arrive to the Island of the Blue Dolphins to hunt for otters. To this the chief essentially says, “Last time I allowed this to happen, I was screwed over, so no thanks.” Using his charm, Captain Orlov convinces the chief that this time will be different. This time, the chief is promised to receive half of the otters that the Russians catch. Unlike the reader, who has seen this plot happen every single time, the chief believes that this arrangement will work. Shockingly, the islanders begin to notice that the Russians are getting ready to leave without sharing any of the otters. Outraged by this ‘unexpected’ turn of events, the chief confronts the fishermen. So let’s refresh: a European arrives on an island inhabited by indigenous people, cons them, and is thus confronted. As history has so readily proved, this confrontation will clearly be in the chief’s favor. Oh, wait, I was thinking textbook history! In actual events, it never ends well for the indigenous people. Amidst the battle, the chief and several men from the island die. There are causalities on the other end and the remaining survivors leave the island.
A new chief determines that they are simply awaiting the return of the fishermen by remaining on the island. He believes that it is only a matter of time until they return to capture more otters. As most of the men in the island have lost their lives in battle, the chief does not believe that they are properly equipped to defend themselves. He leaves his tribe behind in search of a new island for them to inhabit. Months later, ships arrive on the island (sent by the chief) to bring the tribe with them. Karana, the main character, and also the daughter of the chief boards the ship with her sister Ulape. Once boarding, Karana realizes that her brother Ramo is not on. Naturally, she is upset by this and demands the ship to wait for him but she is instructed that another one will be sent out to get him. This part was a tad puzzling because they had not traveled far, nor were they in any immediate danger. They could have easily turned around for Ramo, but I suppose there would be no story then. Yet couldn’t O’Dell have made their departure a matter of urgency instead of people too lazy to turn a ship around?
In a gesture of sibling comaraderie, Karana jumps into the ocean and swims back to the island to be with her brother. Meanwhile, the eldest sister remains on the boat. There is no mention of her reaction, or concern for her siblings for that matter. Perhaps she was thrilled that she would now be the only person linked to the former cheif. I don’t know, it seemed really odd. Her character served no purpose other than the fact that I constantly questioned why she did not give two shits about either of her siblings. Karana and Ramo live alone on the island with the hopes that the ship will return because you know, Karana was initially told that one would come. However, Ramo is killed by a pack of wild dogs in the most anti-climatic way possible. Karana discovers that he has been missing for a while and searches for him, once she finds him, she determines that he is dead. Karana vows to avenge her brother’s death and kills several of the wild dogs, but she cannot bring herself to kill the leader of the pack. She tames him and names him Rontu (meaning “Fox Eyes” in her language). As time passes, Karana has grown accustomed to living on the island.
One summer, the Aleuts return and Karana hides in a cave. In the cave, Karana watches Tutok, an Aleut who is responsible for fetching water by the cave. Tutok somehow discovers Karana and the two develop a brief friendship, causing Karana to realize how lonely she is on the island. Shortly after, the Aleuts leave and Karana finds herself alone once again. The purpose behind this encounter: none. I do not think I needed Tutok to demonstrate to me that the girl who was abandoned by her tribe is lonely.
In a scene that was far more detailed than her brother’s death, Rontu dies. Yet do not fret! Karana finds another wild dog that looks exactly like Rontu. She even manages to tame him as well. She names this dog, Rontu-Aru (“Son of Rontu”). What a circular plot! It is almost as if Rontu did not have to die since he was replaced by himself. Two years pass and a boat arrives onto the shore. Karana dresses up (to impress them?) and greets them. Yet, she might as well have come to them in her typical attire because the members of the boat have new clothes made for her. They take Karana and Rontu-Aru with them to the mission in California. Once there, she finds out that the ship that had taken her people away had sunk.
That can’t possibly be the ending right? It is.
I am not a fan of this book. It felt like I was reading Pocahontas or any other generic story with this same plot. The difference between Pocahontas and Island of the Blue Dolphins is that I actually became invested with the characters. The only character that possessed any dimension was Karana, yet she was rather dull. For someone who lost her father, tribe, brother, and remained stranded on an island, she failed to show much emotion. Additionally, a lot of portions from this book seemed unnecessary. Why add another sibling who clearly doesn’t care about anyone? Why have Rontu die and then regret the decision leading to the creation of an exact replica rather than O’Dell choosing to hit the backspace button? Why incorporate Tutok to stalk Karana and then leave without a goodbye? Why does Karana dress up to impress her rescuers even though she could have presented her badass self that befriended wild dogs?
The names seemed over the top too, specifically the names of the dogs. Fox Eyes and Son of Rontu, remind me of the cliche names that white people create whenever they write a book about Native Americans. I am surprised that Ramo was not named He Who Dies And No One Cares. The story is based off of a girl named Juana Maria, was her name not ethnically pleasing? Did O’Dell feel the need to Native-Americanize her Native American name? Similar to Karana’s indifference to everything, I remain indifferent to the appeal surrounding this book.