I’ve been slowly working my way through a pile of middle-grade and lower YA literature, all of which have held a special place in my heart at some point in time. Richard Peck, E. Nesbit, Louis Sachar, Madeline L’Engle–these were the authors I grew up with, and even just a glimpse at the covers of these books bring back fuzzy, happy memories, even though I have close to no recollection about their actual contents. Reading these older books feels akin to taking a deep dive through my elementary school brain; this is how I came to pick up O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins.
It feels a little presumptuous to write a review for this cherished children’s classic, which sports a gold Newberry Medal on the cover and was named one of the ten best American children’s books by the Children’s Literature Association in 1976. Island of the Blue Dolphins has more than 260,000 ratings on Goodreads–what else is there to say? Well, here goes nothing.
If you are the type to enjoy a good wilderness survival story, this is the book for you. Similar to Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain, readers watch as the MC makes a life for herself in a deserted area–though in this book, the solitude is more forced upon the MC than the plucky MC from George’s series.
The straightforward, first POV prose matches the contents of the book and the MC’s character; this is a book where you feel that the MC is narrating, rather than that we are peering through her eyes, but that’s not a bad thing. To me, this writing style did make the book feel slightly old-fashioned, but just in a “this is different” way, rather than a dated way. Entire seasons pass in a sentence or two; just as the MC stops counting the years she’s been alone, so does O’Dell coax the reader to do the same, leading you to truly feel how solitary her situation is. By the time the book ends, I really wasn’t sure how old the MC was. Twenty? Thirty? Hard to say, and it doesn’t really matter, since the most memorable sections of the book are about individual moments. Befriending an otter. Fighting off wild dogs. These detached scenes from the MC’s years on the island are the true meat of the book.
This being said, I do still wish that the first POV was a tad “closer.” There were a few quick comments from the MC that caught me off guard, simply because it would have been nice to experience the scenes she described, rather than being quickly told about them. The one that I noticed most was a throwaway description when the MC is wrangling with the devilfish.
[His eyes] were the size of small stones and stood out from his head, with black rims and gold centers and in the centers a black spot, like the eyes of a spirit I had once seen on a night that rain fell and lightning forked in the sky.
The description of the spirit is so specific that you can’t help but wonder why we weren’t allowed to experience the scene with the spirit as it happened to the MC, rather than having to be told about it after the fact. How long ago did she see the spirit? What was it doing? Surely whatever she saw is just as relevant to her experience on the island as her going through the arduous, dangerous process of making food and securing shelter.
Yet these are small gripes only. Island of the Blue Dolphins is a book that has stood the test of time, and I recommend it for anyone looking to take a quick and easy mind-getaway to another time and place.