Dr. Sara Schwebel, Professor of English, University of South Carolina and editor of Island of the Blue Dolphins: The Complete Reader’s Edition (University of California Press, 2016). Dr. Schwebel discusses women making weapons.
Karana tells us “the laws of Ghalas-at forbade the making of weapons by women of the tribe.” Gender norms and taboos exist in every society, but we don’t know just what those norms and taboos were for the historical Lone Woman’s people. It is likely, however, that the Lone Woman—just like Karana—had to cross some gender norms in order to live comfortably on the island after the departure of all the male members of her community.
Scott O’Dell’s decision to have Karana describe her fear about breaking gender taboos, and then to show what happens when she does—nothing!—is important to the history of Island of the Blue Dolphins.
When the novel was first published, in 1960, gender norms in the United States were more rigidly enforced than they are today. In fact, during the years following the end of World War II, the ideal of a stay-at-home housewife dominated American media. Girls and boys were raised to follow quite different paths in life, and their dress, play, and studies reflected this.
In reading Island of the Blue Dolphins, girls (and boys) learn that when Karana breaks her community’s rule about how girls should behave, nothing bad happens. In fact, Karana feels stronger and more confident after she makes and wields her own weapons. Because of this, many people in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s (and even today) have praised Scott O’Dell’s novel as being a “good book for girls.”