No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
-John Donne (1572-1631), Meditation XVII
I first read Island of the Blue Dolphins at summer camp, several decades ago. I remembered that I loved it, but the storyline had left my memory. Out of curiosity I reread the book this weekend. Island of the Blue Dolphins is a children’s novel published in 1960 by Scott O’Dell (1898-1989). It is a story about getting on with life no matter what happens. And what happens to Karana, a Native American girl who finds herself alone on San Nicolas Island (known as the Island of the Blue Dolphins), off the coast of California, is among the worst fates that I can imagine.
The story—which won the 1961 John Newbery Medal “for the most distinguished American children’s book published the previous year”—is based on a real situation experienced by a woman who lived alone on San Nicolas Island from 1835 to 1853.
Karana’s mother has died before the novel begins. Then in the novel, Chief Chowig, Karana’s father, is killed in a battle with Aleuts who came to the island to hunt sea otters and have reneged on their agreement to share the pelts equitably. Later, because most of the men on the island have been killed in the fight with the Aleuts, the remaining islanders decide to abandon their home and leave on a rescue ship.
When Karana quickly discovers that her little brother, Romo, is not on the ship, she jumps overboard to be with him and await rescue by another ship. Before long, however, Romo is killed by wild dogs. Karana is then completely alone—to me, one of life’s most terrifying possibilities. Most of the novel tells the story of how she survives until her rescue years later by a missionary ship. It turns out that the ship that had taken her people to California had sunk before it could return for her and Romo.
Karana has lessons to share.
Here is what I admire most about Karana:
- Karana comes to recognize that animals are to be valued and treated with respect as fellow sentient beings, rather than exploited. She befriends the leader among the wild dogs and his son, birds, and an otter and stops hunting or eating animals (other than fish).
- Of course Karana finds her life difficult—facing, for example, ferocious wild dogs, a tsunami and earthquake, and the eventual return of the Aleuts—but she finds pleasure, too, and never loses her hope, her courage, or her ability to get on with what needs to be done, no matter how challenging.
- In order to survive, Karana accepts the need to break the boundaries her people have set concerning appropriate activities for women. She tackles the tasks she must surmount to overcome each of the daunting obstacles she faces.
- Even though she is alone, Karana has self-respect and an appreciation for beauty. She makes herself a pretty skirt of cormorant feathers. During her brief, secret friendship with Tutok—a girl who has accompanied the Aleuts to help with chores during their return visit to the island—Tutok gives her a beautiful necklace that Karana admires. She makes a seashell headband as a gift for Tutok in return.
- Karana understands the need for and gift of friendship. Her animal friends are deeply important to her, but she never loses the desire for human companionship. And so when a missionary ship finally comes for her, she is willing to leave the Island of the Blue Dolphins. She has proven herself able to go on alone, but solitude is not her choice. The lesson for me is that she was able to live, even thrive, while waiting for human contact to return.
I am blessed with exceedingly close and dear friends, but sometimes when I close my apartment door, the weight of being alone smothers me like a blanket thrown over me. Can you imagine what life must have been like for the real woman who was alone on San Nicolas Island for almost two decades? In Island of the Blue Dolphins, Karana, though a child and a fictional character, gives us an example to emulate.
No one is truly alone.
Beyond following Karana’s example, what can we do to overcome our feelings of being alone, whether we are truly without human companionship or are in the throes of temporary loneliness? Let me share what I imagine wise and loved ones in the light have advised me—and perhaps they truly have: Here is an excerpt from the essay “Alone,” from my memoir A Woman in Time:
You are not alone. You think you are alone, but you are not. Yet each person feels alone on this Earth to a certain extent. That is the human experience, but it is not the eternal experience in God’s world. It is a mirage, but a hard one, and a great gift to others is to help take away their loneliness.
You think that you are an odd duck, that you don’t fit in. You fit in as well as all do. Great popularity is rare, and even where it exists, there is the sense of being alone at the center. But it is just a sense, not reality. “We are born alone and die alone” seems true but is false. Your mother and father are with you, your Father is with you, and we are with you—and many more are with you, too. And on top of all these eternal connections, all human souls are connected, united, and you are with the woman in Africa and the woman and man in the Far East, and they are with you.
You can help others realize that they are loved and that they have love to give, even when they feel completely isolated and alone.
Enjoy the day, enjoy life. Give joy and help others by showing them that they belong, that we all belong to one another in caring and responsibility.
When I am feeling alone, I can also follow Karana’s example: confronting my challenges with courage, maintaining my dignity and sense of purpose, reveling in nature’s companionship and magnificence, and never allowing myself to lose hope.