Alone for 18 Years on the "Island of the Blue Dolphins"
written by: Patricia Gable
• edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch
• updated: 7/12/2012
The story of the Lost Woman of San Nicolas is told in this Newbery Medal winning book. The main character, Karana, is like a female Robinson Crusoe braving the elements, hunting for food, and protecting herself against the wild dogs. Review the contents of the book with this chapter summary.
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Strangers Come to the Island
The main character, Karana, remembers a day when she and her little brother, Ramo, were digging up roots for the village to eat when they saw a ship in the distance. The ship is approaching their little island. The island men gathered on the shore, some of them hidden, to greet the strangers. The leader of the strangers, who were called Aleuts, asked if his people could camp on the island and hunt sea otter. The ship’s leader and the island chief struck a deal.
The people on the ship moved onto the island. They were given permission to camp on high ground because the cove would flood when the tide came in and island winds are often strong. The island is shaped like a dolphin on its side. Real dolphins lived in the area and thus the name of the land became Island of the Blue Dolphins. The island chief, Karana’s father, warns the islanders to stay away from the Aleuts and do not try to become friends. By a stroke of luck Ulape, older sister of Karana, found a school of fish trapped on a ledge of land. The village people rejoiced because they were able to feast on the fish for two nights. They would not share the fish with the Aleuts.
Karana was angry that the Aleuts continued to slaughter the playful sea otters. The Aleuts killed them for their pelts. The villagers worried that the Aleuts would try to sneak away in the night and not live up to the original bargain of sharing with the islanders. They carefully watched the Aleuts while they made preparations to leave.
The Aleuts were packing the ship without fulfilling their promises to the islanders. A battle began between the Aleuts and the island men. Karana’s father, the chief, was killed along with many other brave island men. The ship left as a storm began to form.
The tribe originally had 42 men and after the battle only 15 remained alive. A new chief was elected. Women now had to do the jobs that men had once performed. Tension and sadness filled the village. Karana and her sister had the job of gathering abalone, a sea mollusk, and placing them in the sun to dry. Ramo’s job was to keep the wild dogs from eating the abalone. In the spring, the new chief Kimki decided to take a canoe and try to find another country in the east. He hoped to prepare it for the islanders to relocate. Would he ever return?
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Karana is Alone
Kimki did not return. Because it was now the time of year that the Aleuts might return, plans needed to be made. The villagers did not have the manpower to chase the Aleuts away. Instead they packed canoes for an escape should they spot the Aleut ship on the horizon. A different ship was spotted and contained white men sent by Kimki. The white men wanted to take the islanders to a new home. The people had mixed emotions of fear and excitement.
The villagers packed their precious possessions and began to board the ship but little Ramo wanted to return to the village to get his fishing spear. Although he was told not to go back, Ramo did anyway. In the confusion the sisters did not notice that Ramo did not return to the ship. The ship would not wait so Karana jumped into the water to go back to her little brother.
Karana and Ramo were now on the island alone. The wild dogs hovered around the village in search of food. The two young people had to gather food. Ramo decided that he should be the island chief since he was the son of a chief. Despite his youth, small stature and his sister’s objections, he left early one morning to try to move a heavy canoe out to the water. Later in the day Karana found the body of her dead brother surrounded by the wild dogs. She carried him back to the hut and vowed to kill the wild dogs someday.
For many suns, Karana sat dazed. She finally went out looking for food. She decided to leave the village and move to a new place on the island. Although females in the Ghalas-at culture were forbidden to make weapons, it was necessary for Karana to make a weapon to protect herself. Each day she watched for the ship to return.
All summer Karana waited for the ship to return. When winter came and with no ship in sight she felt hopeless and very lonely. She managed to slide a heavy canoe into the water with thoughts of sailing for the land to the east to find the others. Part way along on the trip the canoe began to leak and she returned to the island exhausted and alone.
After sleeping for several days, Karana was surprised to feel happy about being back on the island. She decided to build a more permanent home.
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An Enemy Becomes a Friend
Winter was half over before Karana finished her new home. She used whale ribs to build a fence to protect her from severe weather and animals. She kept a fire going continuously and found ways to keep animals from her food. Now it was time to find materials to make weapons to kill the wild dogs as revenge for her brother’s death.
Karana felt the best thing to make the point of a spear was the tooth of a bull sea elephant. Armed with bow and arrows, she set out to kill one of the bulls. As the bulls gathered two of them got into a vicious fight. Maybe Karana would not have to do the killing herself.
Karana hurt her leg badly as she stumbled away from the fighting bull sea elephants. For five suns she stayed in her home suffering. She finally needed to fetch water. She found herself surrounded by wild dogs so she escaped into a cave and decided to make the cave into another home. Returning to site of the sea elephants she found one of them dead and retrieved some teeth to make spears. Now she was ready for revenge against the wild dogs.
At first Karana set a fire that moved into the cave of the wild dogs. When several came out, she shot them. Among the wounded was the leader of the pack, the dog with the yellow eyes. He was different from the others and Karana thought the Aleuts had left him. This dog was still alive and Karana, for reasons she did not understand, carried him back to her home and tended to his wounds. She named him Rontu meaning Fox Eyes.
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The Devilfish and the Aleuts
Just in case the Aleuts returned, Karana prepared a canoe for escape. All the while she was working, Rontu stayed with her and she was grateful for the company. They found a hiding place for the canoe and encountered a dangerous devilfish.
Rontu was restless and Karana let him out. Karana went fishing for the devilfish and later found Rontu and two of the wild dogs in a fight. After the fight Rontu returned home and never left again. The pack of wild dogs did not return to the area.
Spring brought large amounts of flowers and different kinds of birds. Karana raised two baby birds and made a skirt so that she could dress up. Still no ships came.
Karana had given up her quest to kill the giant devilfish until one day she saw it floating in shallow waters. She and Rontu engaged in a battle with the devilfish and finally killed it. They never pursued a devilfish again.
Enough food was stored for the winter so Karana and Rontu took short trips around the island in the canoe. Then the Aleut’s ship was on the horizon. Karana moved all of her possessions into a cave for protection. She made sure to brush away all of the footprints and evidence of where she was.
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A New Friend
Karana and Rontu stayed in the dark cave during the day and ventured out at night so the Aleuts would not see them. Karana worked on making a skirt. One day Karana went outside in daylight to see the skirt she was making. There she saw a young Aleut girl. Karana held her spear in case she needed to kill the girl. The girl, named Tutok, left. The next day Karana found a beautiful necklace on a stone by the mouth of the cave.
Karana stayed away from the cave one night because of the strange girl. Eventually they became friends and exchanged gifts and languages. Then one day the girl and the Aleut’s ship were gone. Karana was lonely again.
The Aleuts left many wounded otters behind. Karana found a wounded baby otter and nursed it back to health. Then she and the dog moved back to her home and began to prepare for winter. She made earrings to match her new necklace from Tutok.
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By spring Karana’s yard was filled with animal friends and she even found the otter that she had nursed back to health. She vowed to never harm or kill another animal.
Although Karana prepared for their return, the Aleuts never came back to the island. Karana stopped marking the seasons that she had been without her family. Then her beloved dog, Rontu, died.
The following summer Karana noticed a dog in the pack of wild dogs that looked like Rontu. She knew it must be Rontu’s son and captured him to raise as a pet, naming him Rontu-Aru. More and more Karana thought of her sister and her friend Tutok.
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One day the heat and heaviness of the air were signals of terrible weather to come. Huge waves crashed on the island and the earth began to shake. Karana finally made it back to her house. Earthquake!
The earthquake destroyed the cave and therefore the stored food, weapons and the canoes. Karana searched for broken canoes to piece together. In the late spring she feared another storm was coming by the look of the clouds. Then she saw a ship! It was not the ship of the Aleuts or of the white men who took the villagers. Should Karana hide or welcome a chance to be with people again? While she was deciding the ship sailed away.
Two years later the ship returned and this time Karana made herself known, packed her things and went with them. She learned that the ship carrying her sister had sunk on its journey many years before. That is why they never returned for Karana.
The island mentioned in this book is about 75 miles southwest of Los Angeles and was first settled by Indians in about 2000 BC. Facts regarding the main character are sketchy. When she was finally rescued she did not speak an intelligible language. The Lost Woman is buried near the Santa Barbara Mission where she lived when she was rescued.