Reviews 2018

Scott O’Dell. Island of the Blue Dolphins: The Complete Reader’s Edition

Scott O’Dell. Island of the Blue Dolphins: The Complete Reader’s Edition. Ed. Sara L. Schwebel. Oakland: U of California P, 2016. 228 pages. £40.62 (hardback).

Sara L. Schwebel has done an expert job of bringing together the text and contexts of Scott O’Dell’s still popular, even beloved Island of the Blue Dolphins. "[I]nformational rather than interpretive" footnotes accompany the text (92), along with two chapters excised before the novel’s 1960 publication. Two essays succeed the text of the novel, which offer intriguing information about the novel and the nineteenth-century California legend it is based on – The Lone Woman of San Nicholas – and the history of legal complications of Native Americans in the US. Schwebel’s introductory essay discusses the novel’s themes of "multiculturalism, environmentalism, and gender equity" (48) and investigates O’Dell’s writing processes that take this story from a legend to a Newbery-winning novel. Schwebel also examines the 1964 film, as well as O’Dell’s manuscript emendations of names, locations, characters, and language use. Years of archival research, interviews, travel, documentation, and writing are represented in this Complete Reader’s Edition. However, I must ask the question, Why? Why does this children’s novel deserve such scholarly treatment, such prestigious publication, such continued popularity?

My quick answer is, it does not. Schwebel does her best to make a case that O’Dell’s novel deserves careful consideration, due mainly to its continued popularity among educators and librarians, but in the end, it is not the text; it is the context. Island of the Blue Dolphins is a particularly American Robinsonade in that it combines so-called American ingenuity with American rugged self-reliance with the romanticized Native American, the noble savage who is a part of nature. Island has been lauded with awards and critical accolades for decades, first because the iconic Karana seems to be a positive stereotype of a Native American – stoic and strong, poetic in language. However, more recent scholarly treatments have rejected the novel’s so-called multicultural aspects, arguing instead that it conveys an essentialist attitude that suggests that all Native-American cultures are the same, a judgement advocated especially by Debbie Reese. Additionally, scholars and educators have for decades celebrated the novel for its depiction of female empowerment, yet recent close readings indicate the domestication rather than empowerment of Karana. Her defiance of tribal gender taboos against making weapons is frequently cited in support of empowerment, even though Schwebel labels the taboo as being set up as "a straw man" for dramatic purposes (53); there is no evidence to support O’Dell’s gender taboo (75n145). Diann Baecker perceives Karana as "vulnerable, not empowered," and Kristen Gregory argues how Karana becomes more maternal, creating a family of animals dependent upon her, in effect taming herself to make her suitable for the role of wife and mother. However, after Karana has defied the taboo and successfully made weapons, she makes a vow to never kill mammals, which brings us to the third educationally valued theme, that of environmental awareness. While many readers respond positively to Karana’s vow, it is a "culturally improbable" one, notes Schwebel, since the island’s cold and windy climate would necessitate the use of animal skins for protective garments (52). Finally, being set on the island of San Nicolas (renamed Island of the Blue Dolphins by O’Dell) during 1835-1853, the novel is historically based. Schwebel states that "O’Dell steeped himself in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century historical documents" (22) and undoubtedly read the account of George Nidever, who "discovered" the Lone Woman as a seal blubber-eating, middle-aged woman and brought her to California, where she died after seven weeks. Although accounts of the Lone Woman vary among sources, even Schwebel admits that "O’Dell’s details are specific and well researched but also imprecise" (10).

I would be more inclined to assess O’Dell’s acquiring and using of research in Island as careless. Schwebel’s own footnotes make numerous factual corrections to the text which indicate O’Dell’s inattention to detail (10). Nevertheless, Schwebel pushes forward on the historical aspects of the novel, pointing out that Island is "doubly historical": early-to-mid-nineteenth century for the novel’s setting, and mid-twentieth century for the time of O’Dell’s writing of it, undoubtedly reflecting the anxieties concerning the Cold War. Two other critics have suggested additional 1950s concerns that are evoked in Island: the debate surrounding the annexation of Hawai’i, so Karana’s exoticness must be tamed and domesticated just as Hawai’i was (Gregory), and the WW2 home front which pushed women into the traditionally male work force, just as Karana must create her own weapons (Miller).1 Reading Island as doubly historical is one of Schwebel’s most important points. In a 2012 California Islands Symposium, she stresses how "critical" it is for teachers to "present Island of the Blue Dolphins not only as a timeless literary classic but also as a novel whose historical arguments reflect the context of its creation" ("Lost Woman and Last Indians"). As a historian, Schwebel is most concerned that Island, which is still regularly used in classrooms, be discussed more as a springboard for further investigation of the sea otter trade, European and American imperialism towards Native Americans, and new archeological evidence found on San Nicolas that suggests the lifestyle of the people who lived there. As I said earlier, it is the context that is important to this Edition, and, luckily for us, most of the discussion in the essays is also offered online at the Lone Woman Digital Archive, edited by Schwebel, and the Channel Islands National Park website, to which she contributes. These presentations comprise an excellent resource that makes this Edition ultimately less relevant, for the website is more easily accessible and can be changed when new archeological evidence and literary interpretation becomes available. In "Taking Children’s Literature to the Public" (2013), however, Schwebel anticipated this issue by stating that the digital archive and the then not-yet-completed Edition are all part of a larger project, one that offers various avenues for studying the literary, historical, feminist, multicultural, and environmental issues Island evokes (474). In fact, in her Child-Sized History (2011), Schwebel offers a model for teaching Island that should be available to all teachers, explaining how students can use various media to investigate the many-layered contexts of the novel. Unfortunately, Schwebel’s position concerning Island’s use in the classroom, so adamantly expressed in her other publications, does not, to me, come across as forcefully in this Edition. Nor is Schwebel as interested in challenging the view that Karana’s story represents female empowerment. In this Edition, Schwebel is more emphatic about exposing the harmful effects of the literary tropes O’Dell utilized.

Schwebel carefully explains in the Introduction how O’Dell perpetuated the literary trope of the Vanishing Indian, casting the Native American as a tragic figure, a noble savage who cannot survive white people’s corrupt civilization; this false narrative "helped justify Manifest Destiny and the westward expansion that uprooted Native peoples" (15). The essays that surround the text of Island expand on this theme. Carole Goldberg’s "A Counterstory of Native American Persistence" explains how Native Americans have had to work through losses of their land and threats to their cultures to eventual (and still happening) "tribal self-determination" (224). "Karana’s story of resilience and survival," says Goldberg, "is the story of Native America" (228). René L. Vellanoweth’s "Archeology, Island of the Blue Dolphins, and the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island" is a personal, emotional essay narrating how archeologists have discovered and interpreted artifacts recently uncovered on the Island which very likely were collected by the Lone Woman. Similar to Goldberg, Vellanoweth concludes that "to archeologists, the story of the Lone Woman is ultimately a narrative about not just one person but also her ancestors, both immediate and distant" (216). Thus, ironically, one of the essential issues at the heart of criticism of Island, according to Schwebel, Vellanoweth, and Goldberg, that Karana is essentialized, can be positive: it is fortunate that Karana does represent all Native Americans, because her story has motivated intense interest in Native American history and cultures that will continue to be explored.

Overall, I am not quite sure what a Complete Reader’s Edition is supposed to be. Schwebel states in the Preface that it is "the first scholarly edition" (vii) with the aim of bringing "a beloved author and his work to life for readers in a new way" (x). If it is indeed a scholarly edition, then I would have expected to have available more scholarly essays in at least partial form, not just summarized in the introduction. If it is "a life history" (ix), then I would have expected a chronology of O’Dell’s life and works and some discussion of his novels subsequent to Island’s 1960 publication. If it strives to offer a new reading of Island, a contextual one, then this edition probably achieves that. However, this Complete Reader’s Edition does not seem Complete if readers of Island do not have access not just to Schwebel’s other publications but also to those of other scholars as well.

Just as the legend of the Lone Woman of San Nicholas continues to thrive and intrigue, largely due to O’Dell’s novel, so does Island continue to thrive, inviting misreadings and premature conclusions about its value as an educational tool for gender issues and environmental awareness. As Reese laments, "[i]n a spirit of generosity, it is possible to justify why his [O’Dell’s] story met with such success[,] but how do we justify an embrace of it in the present time, when we know so much about accuracy and authenticity of representation?" In "Lost Woman and Last Indians: Reading Island of the Blue Dolphins’s Reception History," Schwebel answers Reese’s question by stating that "if O’Dell’s novel is to have continued value as school curriculum it must be read differently than it has been in the past," that is, by reading the novel only when teachers "situate the novel in a larger historical context" (page number) guiding students’ investigations into how the novel reflects the 1950s milieu and the literary trope of the Vanishing Indian. If Island continues to be used in the classroom, and unfortunately it will, then it should, as Schwebel mandates, be taught only within historical and scholarly context. It is imperative that students understand that ‘historical narrative does not replicate what “really” happened in the past. History by definition is interpretive. It is always open to revision’ (164).

Anita Tarr
Illinois State University, USA


1 Schwebel did not have access to either Gregory’s essay (because it is still unpublished) or Miller’s essay (because it was published after Schwebel’s book), but both indicate that scholarly work on Island is ongoing and that it disputes the so-called educational value of the book when it stands alone without literary and anthropological support.

Works Cited

Baecker, Diann. "Surviving Rescue: A Feminist Reading of Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins." Children’s Literature in Education 38.3 (2006): 195-206. SpringerLink. DOI:

Gregory, K. "The Island Housewife: The Hawaii Question and Island of the Blue Dolphins." Unpublished essay. Cited by permission of the author, 23 May 2018.

Miller, Laura. "Island of the Blue Dolphins and the Dream of Loneliness." The Slate Book Review, 10 Nov. 2016,

Reese, Debbie. "A Critical Look at O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins." American Indians in Children’s Literature, 16 June 2016,

Schwebel, Sara L. Child-Sized History: Fictions of the Past in U.S. Classrooms. Nashville: Vanderbilt UP, 2011. Ebook. Ebscohost.

---. "Lost Women and Last Indians: Reading Island of the Blue Dolphins’s Reception History." 2012 California Islands Symposium. YouTube, 16 June 2018,

---. "Taking Children’s Literature Scholarship to the Public." Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 28.4 ( 2013): 470-75. Project Muse. DOI: