Quicklet on Scott O'Dell's Island of the Blue Dolphins

by Paula Whiteside

What's in the book?

Quicklets: Your reading sidekick!

    • About The Book
    • Introducing The Author
    • Overall Summary
    • Chapter by Chapter Analysis
    • Character List
    • Key Terms and Definitions
    • Major Themes & Symbols
    • Interesting Related Facts
    • Sources
    • Additional Reading



Island of the Blue Dolphins is the 1961 Newbery award-winning book by Scott O’Dell that tells the true story, with some literary license, of a young Indian girl named Karana who was left behind on San Nicolas Island off the California coast, along with her younger brother, after the remnants of their tribe are relocated on the mainland. The book is recommended reading for fourth graders in the California public school system due to its historical and cultural significance, as well as the fact that California fourth-graders, under state standards, are required to learn about the 21 Spanish Missions along the El Camino Real (The Royal Road) and their influence on the indigenous native-Americans during the 1800s.

Karana, also known as“The lone woman of San Nicolas Island,” is buried in an unmarked grave on the grounds of the Santa Barbara Mission where there is a plaque commemorating her. Students are encouraged to map out San Nicolas Island and research the various bird and marine life that Karana utilized to survive from 1835 to 1853.

Kids are invariably drawn to stories of self-sufficiency, without meddling parents and bedtimes. One need only look as far as the Baudelaire orphans in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, or the survivalist skills in action of solitary Sam Gribley in My Side of the Mountain, to see kids’ fascination with life without parental involvement.  However, O’Dell’s story draws a stark contrast to the plucky young heroes of absurdist literature or can-do fictional accounts, with its fact-based narrative of a life-and-death situation that played out for almost two decades.

However, despite the female protagonist’s strength, determination, and knowledge of Indian survival lore passed down over generations, the tragedy of the real-life character’s story goes unnoted by O’Dell and is indeed ironic. Within seven weeks of her rescue from the island and her arrival onto the mainland, “the lone woman of San Nicolas Island,” baptized “Juana Maria” by the Spanish missionaries, most likely succumbed to dysentery, a disease contracted through exposure to her numerous visitors and well-wishers. This is similar to the fate of Pocahontas, who likely contracted smallpox or tuberculosis after arriving in England from her native land of Virginia within a year.

O’Dell chose not to include the material concerning the girl’s tragic end in his original editor’s note, only commenting that, “The facts about her are few,” and comparing her to Robinson Crusoe. Indeed, the author’s purpose for writing the book was his boyhood interest in exploring Deadman’s Island off the Southern California coast around San Pedro. However, unlike Deadman’s Island, which was removed by dredging to improve the harbor at San Pedro, San Nicolas Island still remains and became a base of operations for missile testing systems from the 1970s up to the current day.


Scott O’Dell was born Odell Gabriel Scott to May Elizabeth Gabriel and Bennett Mason Scott on May 23, 1898 in Los Angeles, California. Due to a clerical error in one of his earlier written articles, the author was mistakenly referred to as “Scott O’Dell,” which he liked so much that he changed his name. O’Dell’s earliest recollections of Los Angeles was of “a frontier town” where “there were more jackrabbits than people,” most notable for its orange orchards and the port area. His father’s job with the railroad prompted the family, including younger sister Lucile, born in 1907, to move frequently around Southern California, including Claremont, populated by the descendants of Spanish settlers, and Julian, a border town of Mexico with a gold-mining operation and the heart of the Diegueno Indians.

O’Dell attributed these locales as inspiration for his writings, along with his fascination with the nearby sea when the family lived in a house built on stilts on Rattlesnake Island, now “Terminal Island,” sandwiched between the Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors. As a young boy, the author recalls taking a raft of logs from San Pedro Harbor destined for the sawmill and paddling past the breakwater then around Deadman’s Island to look for devilfish.

According to O’Dell, “Things had been so easy in elementary and high school, I hadn’t needed to study. What’s more, I didn’t know how.” This perhaps explains why O’Dell, after graduating from Long Beach’s Polytechnic High School, attended a series of colleges without receiving a degree. First was Occidental College in Los Angeles where he attended officers training school at the end of World War I. Then he traveled east for a stint at the University of Wisconsin before moving on to Stanford University in Palo Alto and then overseas to the University of Rome.

Giving up on getting a degree, O’Dell gravitated to the burgeoning motion picture industry in Hollywood, where he read and critiqued unsolicited screenplays for the Palmer Photoplay Company, which prompted his first substantial writing, Representative Photoplays Analyzed, at the age of 26.  He also worked as a set dresser then traveled to Rome as a cameraman for the 1925 production of “Ben Hur.” He returned to his love of writing once stateside and at age 36 met with moderate success with the book, Woman of Spain. O’Dell continued in publishing as a magazine editor during the Depression. At the outbreak of World War II, then in his 40s, O’Dell served for a year at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas then with the Coast Guard, closer to home.

O’Dell’s most lasting legacy is with his children’s books, which, according to him, he never set out to write. While doing research for his 1957 book, Country of the Sun: Southern California, An Informal Guide, he stumbled upon the story of a young Indian woman who spent 18 years fending for herself on one of the Channel Islands. Spanish missionaries interceded on behalf of the beleaguered San Nicolas Indians who were being threatened by Aleut hunters and had come to relocate the Indians to the mainland. A young woman reportedly jumped ship to retrieve her lost child, and her odyssey began.

At the time O’Dell was doing research, he was living up in the mountains in Julian and becoming increasingly frustrated with hunters infringing on his property and decimating the wildlife. The parallels with the historical conflict in the story between native peoples and hunters led O’Dell to write: “Island of the Blue Dolphins began in anger, anger at the hunters who invade the mountains where I live and who slaughter everything that creeps or walks or flies.” The book won the Newbery Award in 1961 and led to a sequel, Zia, in 1976. O’Dell went on to win three other Newbery awards for 1966’s The King’s Fifth, 1968’s The Black Pearl, and 1970’s Sing Down The Moon. O’Dell was married twice: first to Jane Rattenbury in 1948 and then to psychologist and children’s author Elizabeth Hall in 1966. O’Dell succumbed to prostate cancer at his home in Mount Cisco, New York on October 15, 1989, and his ashes were scattered off the Southern California coast.

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