I knew this book won the Newbery Medal, but I had no idea it was based on a true story. More about that anon….
Karana is a twelve-year-old girl living on the Island of the Blue Dolphins, so named by the native tribe who lived there for both its shape and some of its many denizens. (Located off the coast of California, this same island was known to the Spanish as La Isla de San Nicolas.)
The island was often invaded by otter pelt hunters, who stole from the natives and depleted the otter population. When Karana’s father, the tribe’s chief, tried to organize a resistance, he was killed along with many other warriors. Those who remained decided to abandon the island. At the last moment, as their rescue ship was leaving, Karana saw that her little brother got left behind, and she jumped over the ship to go to him. The ship with her people never returned for her, and her little brother was killed almost immediately by feral dogs. She was on her own.
This book is the story of how Karana survived over many years, until missionaries came to the island and rescued her. In an Afterword, the author explains:
“The girl Robinson Crusoe whose story I have attempted to re-create actually lived alone upon this island from 1835 to 1853, and is known to history as The Lost Woman of San Nicolas.”
Karana’s story is remarkable. She had to make shelter, and learn to make weapons to kill food and to protect herself. She had to adapt to the loneliness and hopelessness of all those years of abandonment. She made pets out of some of the dogs and birds, made jewelry out of stones and dresses out of cormorant feathers, and learned how to live in and of nature with no one to help her.
The author tells us that Father Gonzales of Santa Barbara Mission, who befriended her after her rescue, never learned her language; they communicated only with signs. In a sense her solitary existence never really ended.
Evaluation: For me, this story was remarkable but also sad. I should note that the author rarely depicts Karana as being sad; in fact, his re-creation of her existence includes many moments of triumph over adversity and happiness from her friendship with the creatures native to the island. But I was sad for the life she missed by trying to rescue her brother; and I was sad for the many days she sat on the mesa and watched for ships; and I was sad that her rescue, seemingly so full of promise, didn’t reunite her with her people. Although the author does not even mention this in his Afterword, the real character on whom Karana is based died only weeks after arriving in Santa Barbara. Nevertheless, I can see readers having the opposite reaction to mine, and focusing on her incredible achievements. And the author does talk about her adaptive techniques in details that are consistently interesting and inspirational. In 1976 the Children’s Literature Association named this story one of the ten best American children’s books of the past 200 years.
Published by HMH Books for Young Readers, 1960
Newbery Medal (1961)
Lewis Carroll Shelf Award (1961)
William Allen White Children’s Book Award, 1963
Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award Nominee (1962)
Children’s Literature Association: “11 Best American Children’s Books of the Past 200 Years”, 1976
Omar’s Book Award, 1985
School Library Journal, Books That Shaped the Century, 2000