Island of the Blue Dolphins

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Blue dolphins.jpg
First edition
AuthorScott O'Dell
Cover artistEvaline Ness
CountryUnited States
GenreChildren's novel
PublisherHoughton Mifflin
Publication date
Media typePrint (hardcover & paperback); Audiobook
Followed byZia 

Island of the Blue Dolphins is a 1960 children's novel by American writer Scott O'Dell, which tells the story of a 12-year-old girl named Karana, who is stranded alone for years on an island off the California coast. It is based on the true story of Juana Maria, a Nicoleño Native American left alone for 18 years on San Nicolas Island during the 19th century.

Island of the Blue Dolphins won the Newbery Medal in 1961.[1] It was adapted into a film of the same name in 1964. O'Dell later wrote a sequel, Zia, published in 1976.

The 50th Anniversary edition of Island of the Blue Dolphins includes a new introduction by Newbery Medalist Lois Lowry and also includes extracts from Father Gonzales Rubio in the Santa Barbara Mission's Book of Burials. Island of the Blue Dolphins: The Complete Reader's Edition, a critical edition edited by Sara L. Schwebel, was published in October 2016 by the University of California Press. It includes two chapters deleted from the book before publication.[2]

Historical basis[edit]

The novel is based on the true story of "The Lone Woman of San Nicholas Island," a Nicoleño Native Californian left alone for 18 years on San Nicolas Island, one of the Channel Islands off the California coast, before being discovered and taken to the mainland in 1853 by sea otter hunter George Nidever and his crew. She is on record under the Christian name Juana Maria, assigned to her by the Santa Barbara Mission where she eventually was brought. No one alive at that time spoke her language. According to Nidever, the Lone Woman lived in a structure supported by whale ribs and stashed useful objects around the island. In 2009, the University of Oregon archaeologist Jon Erlandson found two old redwood boxes eroding from an island sea cliff, with whalebone placed on top of them. With colleagues René Vellanoweth, Lisa Barnett-Thomas, and Troy Davis, Erlandson salvaged the boxes and other artifacts before they were destroyed by erosion. Vellanoweth and Barnett-Thomas later excavated the interior of the boxes in a San Nicolas Island laboratory and documented nearly 200 artifacts of Nicoleño, Euro-American, and Native Alaskan manufacture.[3] The boxes appear to have been cached intentionally sometime between 1725 and 1743. It was also believed the Lone Woman lived in a cave on the island.[4] In 2012, Naval archaeologist Steve Schwartz believed he discovered the buried location of that cave and began an investigation, working with archaeologist René Vellanoweth and his students from California State University, Los Angeles.[5] Commanders at the Navy base on the island ordered Schwartz to halt the dig in 2015.[6][7]

Plot summary[edit]

The main character is a Nicoleño girl named Won-a-pa-lei, whose secret name is Karana. She has a brother named Ramo, whose curiosity usually leads to trouble, and a sister named Ulape. Her people live in a village called Ghalas-at and the tribe survives by gathering roots and fishing.

One day, a ship of Russian fur hunters and Aleut people led by Captain Orlov arrive and persuade the Nicoleños to let them hunt sea otter in exchange for other goods. However, the Russians attempt to swindle the islanders by leaving without paying. When they are confronted by Karana's father Chief Chowig, a battle breaks out. Karana's father and many other men in the tribe died in battle against the well-armed Russians, who escaped largely unscathed.

Later, the "replacement chief" Chief Kimki leaves the island on a canoe for new land in the East. Eventually, he sends a "giant canoe" to bring his people to the mainland even though he himself does not return. The white missionaries come to Karana's village and tell them to pack their goods and go to the ship. Karana's brother Ramo runs off to retrieve his fishing spear. Although Karana urges the captain to wait for Ramo to return, the ship must leave before a storm approaches. Despite restraint, Karana jumps off the ship and swims to shore and the ship departs without them.

The siblings live alone on the island, hoping the ship will return. However, Ramo is brutally killed by a pack of feral dogs. Alone on the island, Karana takes on traditionally male tasks, such as hunting, making spears, and building canoes to survive. She vows to avenge her brother's death and kills several of the dogs, but has a change of heart when she encounters the leader of the pack. She tames him and names him Rontu (meaning "Fox Eyes" in her language).

Over time, Karana makes a life for herself. She builds a home made of whale bones and stocks a cave with provisions in case the Aleuts come back, so she can hide from them. As she explores her island, Karana discovers ancient artifacts and a large octopus (which she calls a devilfish). As time passes, she decides to hunt the devilfish. She also tames some birds and an otter while feeling a close kinship to the animals (the only inhabitants of the island beside herself).

One summer, the Aleuts return and Karana takes refuge in the cave. She observes the Aleuts closely and realizes that a girl named Tutok takes care of the domestic duties including getting water from the pool near Karana's cave. Fearful of being discovered, Karana goes out only at night, yet the curious girl stalks Karana, and the two meet. Karana and Tutok exchange gifts and she realizes how lonely she has been. Karana wishes that Tutok would not leave, yet the next day when Karana makes food for her she does not come. Karana goes searching and sees the ship departing. Sadly, she returns to her house and starts rebuilding.

More time passes and Rontu dies. Karana soon finds a young dog that looks like Rontu and takes him in naming him Rontu-Aru (meaning "Son of Rontu"). One day, Karana sees the sails of a ship. It moors just off-shore but then leaves. Two years later in the spring, the boat returns. Karana dresses in her finest attire, a dress of cormorant feathers, and waits on the shore for the boat. Her rescuers make a dress for her, as they believe her dress of cormorant feathers is not appropriate for the mainland. She does not like the dress, but Karana realizes that it is part of her new life. The ship takes Karana and Rontu-Aru to the mission in Santa Barbara, California. There, she finds out that the ship that had taken her people away had later sunk before it could return from the mainland for her.


At the time of the book's publication, The Horn Book Magazine said: "Years of research must have gone into this book to turn historical fact into so moving and lasting an experience."[8] In a retrospective essay about the Newbery Medal-winning books from 1956 to 1965, librarian Carolyn Horovitz wrote: "The girl, Karana, is portrayed in such intimate and close relationship with the natural elements of her background, the earth, the sea, the animals, the fish, that the reader is given both the terror and beauty of life itself. It is a book to make the reader wonder."[9]

Film adaptation[edit]

A film adaptation of Island of the Blue Dolphins was released on July 3, 1964. It was directed by James B. Clark and starred Celia Kaye as Karana. Jane Klove and Ted Sherdeman adapted the script from O'Dell's novel, and the film was produced by Robert B. Radnitz and Universal Pictures. The film was made on a slight budget but did receive a wide release three months after its New York premiere.[10][11] Howard Thompson writing for The New York Times characterized it as a children's film.[12] Kaye won a Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year for her performance.[13] The film earned an estimated $2 million in rentals in North America.[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Island of the Blue Dolphins Archived 2016-07-16 at the Wayback Machine. ISBNdb (2009). Retrieved 2009-08-26.
  2. ^ "Island of the Blue Dolphins: The Complete Reader's Edition: Scott O'Dell, Sara L. Schwebel". October 4, 2016. Retrieved November 19, 2016.
  3. ^ Erlandson, Jon M., Lisa Thomas-Barnett, René L. Vellanoweth, Steven J. Schwartz, & Daniel R. Muhs. 2013. "From the Island of the Blue Dolphins: a unique 17th-century cache feature from San Nicolas Island, California". Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology 8:66–78.
  4. ^ Carlson, Cheri (April 5, 2019). "How the true story behind 'Island of the Blue Dolphins' is being kept alive". Ventura County Star. Retrieved May 20, 2019.
  5. ^ Chawkins, Steve (October 30, 2012). "'Island of the Blue Dolphins' woman's cave believed found". Los Angeles Times.
  6. ^ "'Island of Blue Dolphins' cave possibly found – Secret History".
  7. ^ Sahagun, Louis (March 5, 2015). "With island dig halted, Lone Woman still a stinging mystery". Los Angeles Times.
  8. ^ The Horn Book Magazine, April 1960, cited in "What did we think of...?". The Horn Book. January 24, 1999. Retrieved October 26, 2020.
  9. ^ Horovitz, Carolyn (1965). "Only the Best". In Kingman, Lee (ed.). Newbery and Caldecott Medal Books: 1956–1965. Boston: The Horn Book, Incorporated. pp. 156–157. LCCN 65-26759.
  10. ^ "Island of the Blue Dolphins". Retrieved 2010-06-15.
  11. ^ Thompson, Howard (July 4, 1964). "Island of the Blue Dolphins (1964)" (Review). The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-06-15.
  12. ^ "Movie Review – Island of Blue Dolphins' Has Premiere –".
  13. ^ "Celia Kaye".
  14. ^ "Big Rental Pictures of 1964", Variety, 6 January 1965 p. 39. Please note this figure is rentals accruing to distributors, not total gross.

External links[edit]

Preceded by
Onion John
Newbery Medal recipient
Succeeded by
The Bronze Bow
Preceded by
The Helen Keller Story
Winner of the
William Allen White Children's Book Award

Succeeded by
The Incredible Journey