Welcome to 'Fine Lines', the feature in which we give a sentimental, sometimes-critical, far more wrinkled look at the children's and YA books we loved in our youth. This week, writer/reviewer/blogger Lizzie Skurnick re-reads the Newbury Medal-award winning 1961 Scott O'Dell classic 'Island of the Blue Dolphins'.
I remember the day the Aleut ship came to our island.
All I want for Christmas is a skirt of black cormorant feathers that shimmer green in the sun! There. I've said it. While we're on the subject, I also want a yucca skirt of tightly woven fibers, a sealskin belt, some sealskin sandals, a necklace of glittering black stones, a bull-elephant-tooth wrislet spear to kill devilfish with and-oh, what the hell. Here's the rest of my wishlist:
Three fine needles of whalebone, an awl for making holes, a good stone knife for scraping hides, two cooking pots, and a small box made from a shell with many earrings in it.
Did you hear that, Mom? A good stone knife. (I am completely serious.) I am speaking, of course, of the possessions of one Won-a-pa-lei, secret name Karana, last inhabitant of the village of Ghalas-at, located on the outcropping of earth known to you as Island of the Blue Dolphins.
For those of you who are too hopped up on Jamie Lynn's blessed event to remember the days when girls only bore awls, Island of the Blue Dolphins is the — true! -ish! — story of a young girl left behind on an island — obvs — off the coast of California in the mid-1800s when her entire village clears out for the mainland, surviving alone in a far less annoying way than Tom Hanks, even if you remove the whole volleyball thing from the equation.
Which brings me to the following question...which is stranger? The propensity of actors, when cast in a film depicting an ancient culture, to speak in English accents, irrespective of the country being portrayed — see Troy, Rome, Hunt for Red October* —, or for all Native American characters in novels to maintain an internal narrative of affectless formality, occasionally peppered with quietly authoritative reverse syntax? (To wit: "He was small for one who had lived so many moons, but quick as a cricket...Below me lay the cove.")
Anyway, I forgive Karana for that, because her father and brother are totally about to die. In fact, it's striking is how quickly all the men in this book are killed off. (Probably because if they were left in the narrative they would have just crowded it out by telling Karana it's bad luck for women to use weapons and whatever, but more on that later.) Here's how it goes down: Karana's father, Chief Chowig, totally pulls a boner by giving his secret name to the Aleuts, who have come to the island to hunt seal. (Aleut, aleut. How do you pronounce "Aleut"? In my Hebraic, Christmas-present-seeking way, I have always thought Al'YOOD, but since I can't even bear to corrupt my childhood memory by bothering to find out who Aleuts truly were or anything, someone will have to tell me.) Chief Chowig also refuses to share his fresh fish with the visitors, and when it's time to go, Captain Orlov, the Aleuts' Russian compatriot, starts a huge fight and most of the men of the village are killed.
Events thereafter lead up to one of my favorite encapsulations of the female condition, ever:
Life in the village should have been peaceful, but it was not. The men said that the women had taken the tasks that rightfully were theirs and now that they had become hunters the men looked down upon them. There was much trouble over this until Kimki decreed that the work would again be divided — henceforth the men would hunt and the women harvest. Since there was already ample food to last thought winter, it no longer mattered who hunted.
Note to self: always be so competent that by the time men figure out we've completely obviated them, it won't matter when they attempt to use their frat-boy clubs to disempower us. Oh, right, we already do that!
Next comes the horrible death of her brother Ramo, which occurs after both of them are left alone on the island because — OF COURSE — as the entire tribe is about to ditch the island for the mainland, Ramo goes back to get his special spear, and Karana has to jump into the ocean and swim back to take care of him. (When I was younger, every time I read this scene, I suffered a nearly unbearable anxiety attack at the thought that Karana would drown even though I knew there would be no book then.) Unfortunately for Ramo, in an equally anxiety-provoking way, he is killed off immediately by a pack of wild dogs.
And now you are just dying for Karana. But don't worry-this ties into my next vaguely-holiday-related point, which is that girls don't really want to play with dolls; they want to perform tasks. (They do still care about clothes, however — after she plunges into the sea to swim back to Ramo, she says: "The only thing that made me angry was that my beautiful skirt of yucca fibers, which I had worked on so hard, was ruined.") Because after she is left to fend for herself, Karana displays a dizzying competence that might even trump Ma's comprehensive mastery over the pig.
She gathers abalones and dries them like a champ. She kills a bunch of wild dogs and tames another one. She builds a huge fence out of whale bones and catches a billion sai sai fish to burn for light. She builds canoes, she outwits Aleut visitors, she almost manages to kill a bull elephant (ummm...hippo?) and a devilfish (octopus!). And best of all, as much as the Tea-tree-candle-copy prose gets on my nerves, it is blessedly free of the cutesy, Up-With-People prose of the American Girl series and other spunk-filled (not THAT kind of spunk, you pervs) books girls have to contend with nowadays.
Because Karana's life kind of sucks! She is alone, so alone that she winds up catching wild animals and snaring them for company, thinking how funny her boy-crazy sister would find the children she's managed to gather, despite her situation. One night, she paddles into a cave filled with creepy figures with abalone-shell eyes made by her ancestors, and a skeleton, and is forced to spend the night when the tide comes in. (She does not, as any American Girl would, a) freak out or b) make a daring escape. She just makes peace as the tide comes in.) Her Aleut dog, Rontu, who is with her for years and years, dies. ("Rontu!" I cried. "Oh, Rontu!" I buried him on the headland. Don't laugh, it's horrible.) A ship comes back for her, and she misses the ship and they leave without her AGAIN. Are you kidding?!???
One of the saddest parts of the narrative occurs towards the end, as Karana tells us how she fills her days alone:
During the time I was taming the birds, I made another skirt. The one I had made of yucca fibers softened in water and braided into twine. I made it just like the others, with folds running lenghtwise. It was open on both sides and hung to my knees. The belt I made of sealskin which could be tied in a knot. I also made a pair of sandals from sealskin for walking over the dunes when the sun was hot, or just to be dressed up when I wore my new skirt of yucca twine.
Often I would put on the skirt and the sandals and walk along the cliff with Rontu. Sometimes I made a wreath of flowers and fastened it to my hair....I also made a wreath for Rontu's neck, which he did not like. Together we would walk along the cliff looking at the sea, and though the white men's ship did not return that spring, it was a happy time. The air smelled of flowers and birds sang everywhere.
Of course, we know this cannot stand. Soon, this missionaries are going to come to bring her over to the mainland, where, like some prisoner falsely convicted and freed too late, she finds herself out of step with the world she doesn't even remember why she tried to get to. (Sorry, you have to read Zia for this whole part.) Everything she's missed is lost to her. Just like girls like her are lost to us.
Sorry! God. Time to go reread the pancake scene in Farmer Boy.
*This has nothing to do with anything. But Sean Connery spoke with a Scottish burr when all of the other actors were historically accurate and, as Russians do, spoke English with Russian accents. That ain't right.
Earlier: Little House In The Big Woods: I Play With A Pig Bladder Like It's A Balloon
The Grounding Of Group Six: Have Fun At School, Kids, And Don't Forget To Die
Are You There Crazy Psychic Muse? It's Me, Lois Duncan