10 November 2011

Island of the Blue Dolphins (Scott O'Dell)

I was obsessed with this book for a while in third grade. I remember writing an extremely derivative story about a girl living on an island by herself. This must be the book where I first came across the words/concepts "abalone" and "cormorant"; while I still have only vague notions of both, they carry with them such an allure of exoticism and self-reliance such that--despite my land-locked distrust of shellfish--I would totes eat an abalone given the opportunity. (I mean, I'm sure it would be gross. But I would eat it.)

Yet I only learned quite recently that Island of the Blue Dolphins is based on a true story. The eponymous island is called San Nicolas, and it's 75 miles off southern California coast--in 1853, a woman was discovered who'd lived there alone for eighteen years, since the rest of her tribe (decimated by Russian-led Aleut otter hunters) departed for the mainland and she was somehow left behind. By the time she was found, her people had all died of European diseases, and she succumbed to the same a mere seven weeks later. No one spoke her language, so no one ever knew her name.

Knowing this gave an undercurrent of melancholy to the reread, but it didn't come close to masking the excitement I remembered from the first several times through--it all came flooding back. O'Dell imagines her isolated life in rich detail: what she eats, wears; where she lives; how she passes her time and assuages her loneliness (mostly by making friends with animals. She's got the best dog). For a little girl without an ounce of self-sufficiency to her credit (I was def. an Indoor Kid, even though I went to a magnet elementary where camping was part of the curriculum), it was hopelessly romantic to think of making my own spears and building my own canoe. Too, while boy adventure stories were (and are) common, this was a book about a girl surviving on her own, by her wits and with her strength--the dudes could have Hatchet. Me, I was gonna be like Karana.

After talking to a customer a few weeks ago about the 50th anniversary of The Phantom Tollbooth, I wondered what on earth had won the Newbery instead in 1961. It was Island of the Blue Dolphins--and you know what? Even with Tollbooth being one of my favoritest favorites, I'm okay with that.

Sunday: Avi's medieval mystery/thriller (at least that's how it's reading so far) Crispin: The Cross of Lead, which won the Newbery in 2003.

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