For a long time I stood and looked back at the Island of the Blue Dolphins. The last thing I saw of it was the high headland. I thought of Rontu lying there beneath the stones of many colors, and of Won-a-tee, wherever she was, and the little red fox that would scratch in vain at my fence, and my canoe hidden in the cave, and of all the happy days.
Island of the Blue Dolphins is a young adult novel about a young girl, Karena, who is left alone on a small island after her tribe, decimated by Aleutian fur traders, leaves for the mainland. It is, of course, a Robinson Crusoe-esque tale, which, outlandish as it sounds on paper, is actually based on the true story of a woman discovered alone on an island in the late 18th century. Unlike Karena, who narrates the novel, this real life survivor was unable to communicate with her rescuers, and so died with her island years still a mystery.
Island is a classic, but it left me a little cold. I appreciate survival stories, which is why I was interested in the first place, and I like young adult literature reasonably well, so I was a bit surprised at my neutral reaction. I can’t say exactly what was unappealing to me, but I suspect it had more to do with tone than anything. It's not really an adventure novel, like the premise leads one to suspect. Instead, it’s a thoughtful, slow-moving meditation on nature, solitude, companionship, and death.
This isn’t bad, of course—most of my favorite novels wouldn’t be described as adventure stories either—but I think I just came to the book too late to truly appreciate it for what it was. The themes it explores, while certainly worthy and meaningful, may not be extremely common in young adult fiction, but they make up the thematic material of a ridiculously large amount of adult novels. And, though it isn’t fair to compare, Island didn’t measure up to the other, more complex novels with which it shares its DNA.
Does this make it a bad book? Not at all. I didn’t dislike it, but I didn’t feel compelled to pick it back up once I put it down either. Call it unjust, ridiculous, whatever—for better or worse, Island of the Blue Dolphins is young adult literature best read by actual young adults.
Bonus: Best review on Amazon.