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Existentialism in Island of the Blue Dolphins

Art can be a powerful tool for good or evil. It can be used to enlighten, to give voice to the marginalized, and to expose injustice. But it can also be used to spread propaganda and brainwash its victims. Young readers can be especially vulnerable. While I would never advocate censorship in the arts, I would caution parents and teachers to be vigilant and involved and to offer a wide variety of literature for young people to read. We want to expand their horizons, not limit them with tunnel vision.

Most of us are products of the times in which we live. It's difficult to escape the influence of institutions and culture. Existentialism investigates the individual's ability to transcend ideology to act freely and to no longer be a robot or a puppet living in the matrix, but to be aware. Instead of accepting a meaning of life that is inherited, the existentialist creates his or her own meaning of life.

***Spoiler Alert****

The book cover for island of the blue dolphins.

This ability to reject what is inherited to develop independent thought and action is the main theme in Scott O'Dell's The Island of the Blue Dolphins. Karana, the daughter of the chief of Ghalas-at, is left alone on an island during her tribe's attempt to evacuate. The island has been her home for the twelve years that she's been alive. This fact is important. She's not a stranger in a strange land. She's a native to the island, and she knows it very well.

At first, she attempts to live according to the beliefs and customs that she has inherited from her tribe. For example, she's been taught that if a female were to make weapons, devastating consequences would be the result. She's terrified to go against what she's been taught, but she soon learns that, if she doesn't, she won't survive.

This idea is reinforced by the actions of her brother, Ramo--the reason she's left on the island in the first place. While on the ship preparing to evacuate with her tribe, Karana sees her little brother has been accidentally left behind. Because of a storm, the ship can't wait. Karana flings herself into the sea and swims ashore, so her brother won't be left alone.

Unlike Karana, her little brother fully embraces the beliefs he's inherited, one of which is that only males can be chief. He's half his sister's age, but he foolishly insists that he's now chief of the island and can do what he wants, and this is what gets him killed.

Karana is placed in a situation in which she must question her beliefs or die, but not every change in her values is motivated by survival. Once she begins to question--once she realizes that she can question--she changes her mind about animals, too. Instead of seeing them as things to be used, she begins to see them as friends and family. Eventually, she becomes the queen of her own island--not by dominating it but by living in harmony with her surroundings.

And yet, everything her tribe warned her would happen if a woman were to make weapons happens. Fortunately by then, Karana is woke enough to realize that her actions haven't caused the winds, earthquake, and tidal wave. The superstitious causal connection between her actions and the natural calamities has been severed.

Sadly, in the end, her need for human companionship leads her to accept the offer of missionaries to take her away from the island to the mainland. The missionaries reject her style of clothing, suggesting that it isn't proper, and she's made to fashion a dress from men's trousers that is hot and itchy and stifling. Her acceptance of help from the missionaries requires her to give up her independence to be saddled once again by customs that hinder freedom.

The Island of the Blue Dolphins is an adventure story for children around the age of ten. It has many other themes, such as forgiveness, loneliness, environmentalism, animal rights, human innovation, and perserverance, but its existential themes are the most important. The book shows young minds that it is okay to question the beliefs one has inherited--not just okay, but essential.

Watch me talk about it on Book tête-à-TEA with Eva Pohler here:

Btw, if you don't already own The Bookworm Bible--my fifty-page comprehensive guide for book lovers compiled from articles I've written over the years on topics such as "How to Overcome a Reading Slump" and "How to Write Easy Peasy Book Reviews" with free resources such as a printable reading log, review templates, and an online reading journal--grab your free copy here.


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