Dr. Sara Schwebel

Dr. Sara Schwebel
Dr. Sara Schwebel

Chapter 7

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 Karana jumping overboard as the ship is leaving the island.

When Karana realized that the ship carrying her people away from the Island of the Blue Dolphins would not turn back to collect six-year-old Ramo, she “flung” herself “into the sea.” It is a dramatic moment! Where did this idea of Karana swimming back to shore come from?

Scott O’Dell conducted extensive research on the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island when he was writing his novel. He learned about a supposed jump overboard during this research. In fact, the story of the jump overboard appeared in what historians believe is the very first written account of the California Indian who remained behind on San Nicolas Island when the rest of her people were removed to the California mainland, in 1835. An 1847 article that was first printed in a Boston newspaper includes the following description:

The order had been given to shove from the shore; the oars had dipped in the wave; the boat was rising on the foaming surf, then breaking on the beach with awful roar, when, with the impulse of the moment as it were, this young and blooming bride of the red man, the imprint of whose footstep had been the last left on the sands of her island home, waved an adieu to her chosen mate, plunged into the abyss, “strove through the surge,” and, in another moment, stood alone on the shores of her native land.

In this passage from a January 7 article in the Boston Atlas, we can see some details that make their way into O’Dell’s depiction of Karana. The Lone Woman is “young” and she “plunged into the abyss”—that is, she jumped into a deep, angry ocean that was like a bottomless pit. The journalist describes the Lone Woman’s jump as taking place during a storm that prevented the boat from turning back. The surf is “foaming” and the ocean’s waves are “breaking on the beach with [an] awful roar.”

After it was published, the Boston Atlas newspaper article was reprinted in a number of other newspapers as far away as New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Wisconsin, and even Hawaii! More importantly, once this 1847 account of the Lone Woman appeared in print, the detail of her jumping into the sea and swimming back to shore was repeated in many other accounts of the Lone Woman’s life.

Scott O’Dell probably didn’t read the Boston Atlas story but instead read other accounts, published as late as the 1950s, that took their information from the Boston Atlas and its reprintings. (If you read Scott O’Dell’s author’s note in Island of the Blue Dolphins, you’ll see that he says that the details of the jump overboard come from the “reports of Captain Hubbard.” This is probably incorrect as no such records of Captain Hubbard have been found by researchers.)

Did the real Lone Woman jump or dive into the sea? We can’t know for sure, but it seems unlikely. Other accounts state that she never got on board the ship in the first place. Why, then, did the jump overboard become central to so many stories about the Lone Woman, including Island of the Blue Dolphins? It makes a good story! And during the 1800s (nineteenth century), newspaper writers were not expected to limit themselves to facts. Like novelists (or fiction writers) in the past and today, they were encouraged to write what people would be excited to read.

Chapter 9

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.”

Chapter 24

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), discusses Karana’s decision to never kill another animal to make clothing or tools.

The summer after Tutok leaves, Karana befriends Won-a-nee and realizes that animals have now taken the place of humans in her life: they are her family and friends. She decides to never kill another animal to make clothing or tools (although she will continue to eat fish and shellfish, a central part of her diet). Later in the story, when the white men arrive to hunt otter (chapter 29), Karana will pretend she does not know where the animals live.

The historical Lone Woman did not behave this way: animal furs were essential for warm clothing, and bones and sinew were necessary for fashioning tools and weapons. When the otter hunting party led by George Nidever first saw the Lone Woman on San Nicolas Island, she was wearing a dress made of cormorant skins and belted at the waist with a rope made of sinew. She carried seal meat with her when she accompanied the otter hunters to their camp, where she lived with the men for a number of weeks. In her presence, the white American, Chumash, and Gabrielino (Tongva) hunters killed and skinned otter for the maritime fur trade.

Animals were nonetheless important companions for the historical Lone Woman. George Nidever and Carl Dittman describe in their memoirs the way that dogs responded to the Lone Woman’s commands; they were clearly well-trained pets.

The difference between the ways the historical Lone Woman and the fictional Karana interacted with animals is important to Island of the Blue Dolphins’ enduring popularity. Karana’s pescatarian (fish and shellfish) diet and vow never to kill mammals or birds spoke to readers who were becoming increasingly concerned, after World War II, about the way human behaviors were affecting the natural world.

Scott O’Dell was an early environmentalist. He described a central motivation for writing Island of the Blue Dolphins as his anger toward the hunters who killed animals in the mountains near his home in Julian, California. He hoped that readers of Island of the Blue Dolphins would come to love the animals that lived on Karana’s island and because of that, they would want to protect all animals against human violence.

Rachel Carson, a marine biologist, also believed that people could be stirred to anger and action through books. In 1962, two years after Island of the Blue Dolphins appeared in print, she published Silent Spring to popular and critical acclaim.

Silent Spring’s topic was the dangerous effect of synthetic pesticides, but more broadly, the book warned readers that human actions affected the natural world, and that this had serious consequences for humans themselves. Today, historians point to Rachel Carson’s book as the beginning of the modern environmental movement in the United States. It not only influenced government policy but also motivated individual readers to take action. It was a call to arms.

Silent Spring was published by Houghton Mifflin, the same publisher that produced Island of the Blue Dolphins. Before O’Dell’s novel appeared in print, O’Dell’s editor asked Rachel Carson for her opinion of the book. She wrote: “It held me spellbound from the first word. The limpid beauty of its prose, the timeless and elemental quality of its theme, combine to make a book that would be memorable in any year. … It is fine to have such a book for young readers, but I hope you’ll make clear its appeal to adults also” (12 Feb. 1960, Rachel Carson to Austin Olney, MSAM 2105 [194], Houghton Library, Harvard University).

Rachel Carson’s praise for O’Dell later appeared in print advertising for Island of the Blue Dolphins. Librarians who admired the novel’s message about caring for animals—an easy way for children to relate to environmental issues—recommended the book to young people. Elementary school teachers used the book in their classrooms for both reading and science lessons. They still do.

Last updated: November 6, 2017