Island of the Blue Dolphins: Feminism and Environmentalism

Scott O’Dell researched and wrote Island of the Blue Dolphins in the late 1950’s and published the book in 1960. The feminist and environmentalist themes in the book, while quite uncontroversial today, were incredibly groundbreaking for their time, being published a few years before books such as Silent Spring or The Feminine Mystique.

The fact that this book was published at all in 1960 is amazing. At the time, no media featured a female protagonist who never has a romantic partner, whose most significant relationship is a friendship with another woman, and who is capable of providing for herself without needing help. In fact, the first publisher O’Dell approached rejected the book because he thought it should have a male protagonist.

Using Karana’s direct, reasonable observations, O’Dell critiques the idea of banning women from employment or exploiting the natural world to the point of unsustainable degradation. Island of the Blue Dolphins can absolutely be appreciated as a straightforward survival story. But by understanding a little bit more about he context of the environmentalist and feminist movements in California in the 1950’s, readers ready for a deeper understanding of the world can delve into its themes and learn about how we can be better to one another and the world we live in.

Activity: 20th Century Environmental Efforts

Today it is generally accepted that we should use the resources of the earth in a sustainable manner, avoid creating excessive pollution, and treat animals humanely. But in the 1950’s this was a very new idea that was strongly resisted by politicians and leaders of industry. It was more attractive to dismiss concerns about pollution, habitat loss, and animal extinction than to make less profit by doing things sustainably.

Students can research an environmental cause of the 20th century in which scientists and conservationists turned out to be correct, and fixing the problem turned out to be expensive and difficult. Students can present their findings as a written report, a skit, or a multimedia presentation. Some examples of topics include:

Lead Poisoning

The chemical and petroleum industries deliberately misled the public for a long time about the dangers of lead, blaming parents when children became ill or died from exposure to the metal. Clair Cameron Patterson was the most prominent scientist to campaign against the use of lead in consumer products, resulting in improved health and longer lives for countless people.

DDT

DDT was sprayed on plants to kill insects. It is a highly powerful poison that lasts a long time when it gets into water, soil, and the bodies of animals. When mother birds were exposed to DDT, the eggs they laid had shells that were too thin. The eggs would break before the baby birds could be born, leading to a sharp decline in the numbers of birds in North America. The California Condor nearly went extinct because of DDT.

The Sierra Club and Environmental Laws

The Sierra Club was founded in 1892 and has continuously worked for laws that protect public land so that it can remain beautiful, healthy, and enjoyed by all visitors. Students can research one of the Sierra Club’s many successful efforts, such as working to pass the Wilderness Act in the US Congress or establishing Earth Day to raise awareness of environmental concerns.

Island of the Blue Dolphins: Lost but not Forgotten

This is the first of two episodes about the Newbery Award winning novel Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell. This book is a work of speculative historical fiction that imagines what the life of the Lone Woman of San Nicolas might have been like. It is not and never could have been a work that reported history accurately, because the history can never truly be known. But O’Dell did his best to research what he could, and his novel ignited interest in researching the life of the Lone Woman that still burns bright today. Because of Island of the Blue Dolphins, not only is the Lone Woman not forgotten, but she and her lost culture have be the subjects of some of the best historical and archaeological research in the world.

This episode summarizes the most accurate information currently available about the life of the Lone Woman. Whenever Island of the Blue Dolphins is taught, kids want to know how much of the story is real. There are a lot of scraps of information you can find online, and very little of it is accurate. We now know that the stories recorded in the nineteenth century ranged from mostly true to flat out fabrications by people who never even met the Lone Woman of San Nicolas. Parents and teachers can use this episode to help them feel confident about answering kids’ questions about what we do and don’t know about the Lone Woman, or Karana as she’s called in the novel. The next episode will focus on the fictional story in Island of the Blue Dolphins.

Reliable Sources for learning about the true history of the woman that inspired Island of the Blue Dolphins

Channel Islands National Park guide to Island of the Blue Dolphins

Channel Islands National Park YouTube Channel

Islapedia

Articles written by the following people about San Nicolas Island and the Lost Woman of San Nicolas are very reliable:

    • John R. Johnson, an anthropologist with expertise on the languages and cultures of coastal and island tribes of Southern California
    • Susan L. Morris, a researcher who examines original documents such as maps, letters, shipping documents, company records, and newspapers to re-create an accurate timeline for the period of the Lone Woman’s life.
    • Steven J. Schwartz an archaeologist who worked for the US Navy doing excavations on San Nicolas island
    • René L. Vellanoweth, an anthropologist at California State University who has also led expeditions to sites on San Nicolas island
    • Carol Peterson, the education coordinator for Channel Islands National Park

Activity: What is a Reliable Source?

Talk with students about the definition of the word reliable: “consistently good in quality or performance; able to be trusted.” When doing research for school work, students should only use sources that are reliable.

Reliable sources:

    • Are written by someone who is an expert about the topic
    • Have information that is accurate and up to date
    • Do not express opinions without strong evidence behind them
    • Do not try to persuade the reader to agree
    • Are published by well-respected groups or people who have a good record of sharing accurate information

On a piece of paper or whiteboard, make two columns, one titled “reliable” and the other “unreliable.” Ask students to suggest sources of information that are reliable. They should come up with ideas like museums, scientists, researchers, teachers, librarians, experts, academic books, and so on. Ask students to also suggest sources which are unreliable sources of facts. They should list things like articles without an author, gossip, rumors, advertisements, political arguments, old and out of date documents, or sources which promote a belief at the expense of facts. Discuss how students can recognize the difference between reliable and unreliable sources.