Survivor: San Nicolas Island

Island of the Blue Dolphins. Blue_dolphins

 

This book had a huge effect on me as a kid. The idea of being lost, abandoned — it’s a theme that runs through a lot of children’s literature, especially fairy tales, and it reflects a very basic fear. Which of us didn’t get lost as a child? Who hasn’t let go of a parent’s hand in the mall or the park, looked around, seen only strangers’ faces? That feeling of dread and helplessness is familiar to most people.

 

But Island of the Blue Dolphins takes this primal terror one step farther. Not only is the main character, Karana, lost, she is abandoned by EVERYONE, completely alone on her island except for her brother and the wild dog she tames. As far as she knows, she will be alone forever. And yet…she survives. She figures out how to live. Even when the worst happens, she endures.

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Why am I writing about this? Because I visited the Mission Santa Barbara this week, and found out that the real person on whom Karana is based is buried there. There was a display about her — the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island.

 

The Lone Woman’s true story, as far as it’s known, differs somewhat from Scott O’Dell’s fictional version.  Her people, the Nicoleño, were killed in great numbers in clashes with fur trappers who came to the island in the early 1800s to hunt for otter. The Mission sent out a rescue boat to bring the remaining twenty or so back to the mainland (some versions suggest that the Mission wanted the Nicoleño to work their grounds, as they needed to replace workers who had died). Accounts state that the Lone Woman stayed behind or leaped off the ship because she had been separated from her child, but there’s no proof of this. She may simply have been forgotten. A storm blew up before she could be found and taken onboard, and the ship returned to California. People gradually forgot about her.

 

Eighteen years passed.

karana

 

When the Lone Woman was finally found in 1853, she had been living alone on the island in a cave. A trapper who had heard of her story located her and brought her back to the Mission. She was unable to understand or be understood by anyone on the mainland, though she enjoyed the company of people who flocked to see her. She was entranced by horses and clothing, and she ate as much fresh food as she could. But only weeks after her rescue, she contracted dysentery and died. After her death, she was baptized Juana Maria.

Hatchet my side

 

Scott O’Dell’s version is slightly more kid-friendly, making the Lone Woman several years younger than she probably was and giving her a brother and a dog as companions. But the basic story is the same. It enthralled me, the same way other tales of abandonment and survival did — My Side of the Mountain, Hatchet. Or even stories about kids isolated by their differences — Harriet the Spy, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, A Wrinkle in Time.  The idea that a young person can endure and even thrive in isolation helps, I think, to assuage the feeling of aloneness that all children feel at some point in their lives. And few characters in children’s literature are as utterly alone as Karana.

 

Juana Maria’s life is a testament to what humans can endure. Her story’s real, tragic ending was a blow to me when I read about it at the Mission — I didn’t remember having heard it before.  I’m glad I didn’t know it when I was ten. But I’m also glad that Scott O’Dell chose to immortalize the Lone Woman in a novel that kids still adore, even fifty-four years after it was first published.100_7211

 

A Proud Taste for E.L. Konigsburg

konigs2Today I found out that one of my favorite writers, E.L. Konigsburg, had died.

 

Her first two books, the Newbery Honor title Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth and the Newbery Award Winner From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, were published when I was exactly the right age tkonigs1o devour them. I read them and read them and read them again. I wanted to be Claudia and run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And I wanted to be E.L. Konigsburg and write a book that made readers want to be my characters.

metI was 20 when I finally got to the Met, and I walked from room to room seeing it through Claudia’s eyes. A couple of years later, I wrote my first novel, about a girl who runs away to live in Central Park. Like most first novels, it was completely unpublishable (a lack of originality was not its biggest problem), but it just goes to show: the influence of a great story lives on in its readers. The desire to write E.L. Konigsburg’s actual book has evolved into konigs3the desire to write as good a book as E.L. Konigsburg did, and I’ll keep trying to do it for as long as I write.

Thank you, Elaine Konigsburg, for the stories and the inspiration.

Some days you must learn a great deal. But you should also have days when you  allow what is already in you to swell up and touch everything. 

— E.L. Konigsburg

Misty-Eyed

We took a spring break trip to the Northern Neck of Virginia last week, searching for signs of Henry_Misty spring, birds, and the ponies of Chincoteague. Long ago I was a little obsessed with Misty of Chincoteague, though I am really, rhorseseally not a horse person. I loved it so much that I read all the other Marguerite Henry books (none quite lived up to Misty).

The National Seashore at Assateague Island, where the ponies live, is accessible from two states, Virginia and Maryland. We were staying the night in Chincoteague, so we went in from the Virginia side. There were lots and lots of birds, and finally, at a great distance, a pony sighting — a group of five roaming through the sandy scrub. Still, that wasn’t enough for me.  I was ready for a closeup.

In the morning we set out for the Maryland entrance to the park. It was freezing cold and snowing a little, so we weren’t feeling too hopeful. But…

Ponies!100_6561.2

 

Ponies sticking their heads into cars, sashaying across the road as if they owned it (which they sort of do), clipclopping down the bike path. Mistys here, Stormys there. It was a Marguerite Henry-lover’s dream.

100_6562.2(Spoiler fact alert: We learned, to my shock and consternation, that these are not really ponies. They are horses, stunted from their meager diet of scrub, and bloated from their excessive water-drinking because of the salty diet. And they BITE. But I still loved them.)

 

 

Just in case you were wondering, the Pony Swim and Pony Penning Days still happen. You can read about them here.