Rediscovering Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins in the middle of a discount book store, I had no idea I would soon be embarking on my own little journey…By an eerie coincidence, the store where I rediscovered Karana’s story was a mere two hours drive from the real-life Karana’s final resting place at the Santa Barbara Mission, and I decided to visit.
The Santa Barbara Mission could not have been more picturesque; with its mountain backdrop and proximity to the ocean, it is certainly surrounded by an abundance of natural beauty. I was surprised to discover that unlike some others of California’s missions, which remain only as monuments to California’s history, the Santa Barbara Mission is still a working mission with a congregation, and holds regular mass. The mission is a beautiful building, with a walking tour that showcases its scenic gardens and fountains, old living quarters, cemetery, chapel, and historic artifacts preserved from the missions earlier days. Its cemetery is also the burial site of Juana Maria, or The Lone Woman of San Nicholas.
Island of the Blue Dolphins tells the story of Karana, a Native American girl living on a secluded island, when she is accidently abandoned as her people are leaving the island. When Karana’s people leave, she has no choice but to make do on her own and survive the best she can, and until someone comes back for her. Karana makes weapons and shelter; hunts, fishes, and forages; and learns to survive on her island, for the next EIGHTEEN YEARS. BY. HERSELF.
The scenes that rang with excitement and adventure reading the story as a child were tinged with heartache and loss rereading it as an adult—Especially remembering that Karana’s story was inspired by real life events. Scott O’Dell’s depiction of Karana was pieced together from reports of Juana Maria, and the few artifacts brought back with her—tools made of bone and stone, and a skirt made from cormorant feathers. Having visited this area myself, I can really appreciate all the details that O’Dell infused in Island of the Blue Dolphins.—One part in particular resonated with me. When I first moved to the area, I could see what looked like oil rigs, far out against the horizon. Later, while visiting a local beach, I found myself unsuccessfully trying to navigate gummy blobs of tar as they washed ashore. I blamed my sticky, black-stained feet on the product of oil-drilling…until I read a passage in Island of the Blue Dolphins, where Karana talks about how her people [gather black pitch along the shore, using it to fill in the planks of their canoes].
Scott O’Dell’s Karana was actually based on a woman known to the missionaries as Juana Maria, or The Lone Woman of San Nicholas Island—San Nicholas being one of the more remote of the Channel Islands, a group of islands off the coast of southern California. Because she was unable to communicate more than signs, she was never able to share who she really was and tell her own story, a lot of what happened on that island still seems to be a mystery, but from what I’ve read and saw, it seems that San Nicholas was a rich habitat for sea otters, and the price of sea otter skins drew hunters to the island. During one of the hunting trips, it appears that there was a great massacre, decimating most of the native inhabitants. Not long after, the remaining inhabitants either decided or were persuaded to leave the island.
In Scott O’Dell’s book, Karana notices her brother is missing, jumps ship, and goes to bring him back. In real life, it is believed that Juana Maria actually went back for her son. But in either case, the ship was faced with rough weather and left before the girl could make it back to the ship. In real life, half-hearted rescue attempts were made, and before long, Juana Maria was all but forgotten. It took eighteen years before a local fur trapper scouting the islands finally rescued Juana Maria.
When she was brought to the Santa Barbara Mission, Juana Maria was only able to communicate through signs—She unable to understand any of the various Native Americans living there, nor any of them able to understand her. Juana Maria lived alone on San Nicholas between 1835 and 1853—She was believed to have been around 40 or 50 when she was rescued—which would have put her in her 20s or 30s when she was abandoned. Sadly, upon her return, Juana Maria contracted dysentery and died within two months of having been “rescued.” The Lone Woman of San Nicholas was christened “Juana Maria” on her deathbed, and buried at the Santa Barbara Mission.
Walking through the stone hallways, gazing at the lush gardens, I couldn’t stop myself from being angry for Juana Maria. People KNEW she was there. They were SO close. And they just left her there for EIGHTEEN YEARS?!?!?!!? Granted, technology of the 1800s was a little more perilous, than today’s. They couldn’t have sent a helicopter or a ferry for her back then. It might have taken days or weeks instead of hours, but SOMEONE could have gone back for her. SOMEONE should have gone back for her. *sigh* I’m glad I went to visit…but like the book, the mission was bittersweet for me—a tropical paradise, tinged with the sadness of an needless tragedy.