If you stand atop the headland that the Spanish explorers called El Malibu, to the north and west of Los Angeles, and look to the south, you may be able to see the hint of a little island through the haze.
Two hundred years ago, in 1814, the people who lived there were massacred. They were killed not by Americans or Europeans, that old familiar story, but by other Native people—granted, Aleuts in the employ of a Russian fur company. With that act of violence, the Nicoleño people, the people of San Nicolas Island, disappeared from history.
But not quite. One of them, a young woman whom later Spanish missionaries called Juana Maria, hid from the killing. The Aleuts left, occasionally to return. Her brother, who also escaped the massacre, soon fell victim to a pack of feral dogs, one of whom Juana Maria tamed. That dog was her only company for the next two decades, during which Juana Maria lived alone on San Nicolas, a real-life Crusoe.
From passing ships, rumors reached the mainland about Juana Maria, a bedraggled apparition dressed, barely, in blue-green cormorant feathers. Authorities hired a fur trapper to explore San Nicolas, and eventually, he found her living in a cave, its mouth protected by a palisade of whale ribs, and took her to the mainland. Juana Maria—who reportedly was delighted by the crowds of people and the sight of horses—lived only two months more before dying of some unspecified illness, and she was buried in an unmarked grave. Her cormorant dress was lost in the Vatican Museum, while others of her things, housed in a San Francisco museum, were burned in the fires that followed the earthquake of 1906.
Juana Maria’s is but one of countless tragic stories of that time and place. It would have been forgotten had a writer named Scott O’Dell, who specialized in historically based stories intended for teenage readers, not discovered it. In 1960, his novel Island of the Blue Dolphins was published, with Juana Maria
now bearing the name Karana. O’Dell exercised creative license with parts of the story, since Juana Maria did not live long enough to tell it in any detail herself: He imagined, for instance, that Karana found a sort of Friday in an Aleut girl about her age, and he gave her Merlin-like abilities to communicate with animals, from devilfish to otters and shorebirds. There is a quiet sorrow to the book, particularly when Karana’s dog, too, finally dies, leaving her bereft: “I could feel his heart beating, but it beat only twice, very loudly, slow and hollow like the waves on the beach, and then no more.”
O’Dell’s book became an immediate hit, and more than a half-century later, it remains in print. Fifty years ago, it was made into a film; the studio bosses seem not to have liked it much and didn’t give it much support, but it, too, enjoyed commercial success. Given the clean-scrubbed pieties of the day, the film removed some of the grittier realities that O’Dell subtly portrayed. The book retains its power—and the movie is ripe for a remake.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor at Kirkus Reviews. This column originally appeared in the Feb. 1 issue.