S an Nicolas, located 61 miles off the west coast of the United States, is the most remote of the California Channel Islands. Inhabited by the Nicoleño tribe until 1835, today San Nicolas is used by the U.S. Navy for training and weapons testing. For grade schoolers, however, San Nicolas is not just another island—it’s the home of the main character in Scott O’Dell’s 1960 Newbery Medal-winning novel Island of the Blue Dolpins. O’Dell’s novel, although fiction, is based on the remarkable true story of a 12-year-old Native American girl who survived alone on San Nicolas for 18 years.
Paul Goldsmith’s documentary Alone on the Island of the Blue Dolphins seeks out the real story behind O’Dell’s novel. Considering how well known this novel is, it’s amazing how little we actually know about this remarkable young woman—not even her birth name. She’s called Karana in the book, and was baptized Juana Maria at the Santa Barbara Mission where she was taken after being removed from the island, and is often referred to as The Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island to refer to the real woman without using a name imposed a society not her own (and in a language not her own—she was the last native speaker of the Nicoleño language). We don’t know the circumstances in which she came to be left on the island when the rest of her people departed. For that matter, we know very about the Nicoleños either, because after leaving the island they assimilated into the mainland California population.
Based primarily on historical and archaeological research, Alone on the Island of the Blue Dolphins helps answer questions young readers and their teachers may have regarding the Lone Woman. So it shows us the cave where she most likely sought shelter and a hairpin she brought with her to the mainland, and learn about how she most likely obtained food and water. We also see clips of school children responding to the novel and interviews with archaeologists and historians about the Lone Woman’s story and Native American cultures of the day (some also speculate on what the Lone Woman might have been thinking and feeling, which I could have done without, but which will probably resonate much more with younger viewers).
Alone on the Island of the Blue Dolphins is clearly meant for the educational market. It’s just under an hour (58 min.) and its production values are basic, but it fills the bill for people who want to learn more about the historical and cultural background of the central character in this perennialy popular children’s novel.
Alone on the Island of the Blue Dolphins is distributed on DVD by First Run Features. Extras on the disc include five short documentary films which provide more information about the book and its subject: “Lone Woman Artifacts Found in Santa Barbara” (4 min.), “Nicolenos Before the Island of the Blue Dolphins” (15 min.), “Ernestine de Soto on Religion” (4 min.), “More About Scott O’Dell and His Novel ‘The Island of the Blue Dolphins'” (26 min.), and “The Cache: The Archaeology Story” (22 min.). | Sarah Boslaugh