Plot Summary With Analysis
Summary – Chapter One and Chapter Two
This novel has a first-person narrator, Karana, and begins with a reference to visitors to the eponymous island: ‘I remember the day the Aleut ship came to our island.’ This ship has two red sails and Karana and her brother, Ramo, are in the harbour, Coral Grove, gathering roots when they see it. She describes herself as being twelve years of age, and Ramo is six.
He says how smooth the sea is and that it is ‘“a flat stone without any scratches”’. She points out that he likes to think in metaphors in that he likes to ‘pretend that one thing was another’. When he notices the ship, he does not know what it is as he has never seen one before or heard of one described. At first, he thinks it is a red whale and goes on to describe it as a large red canoe. He runs off in excitement and although Karana is also excited she also knows ‘a ship could mean many things’ and carries on digging for roots ‘because they were needed by the village’.
The ship sails round the kelp bed ‘that encloses our island’ and news of it reaches the village, Ghalas-at. The men of the village carry their weapons down to the shore and the women gather ‘at the edge of the mesa’. Karana goes to the cliff edge and crouches to see what is happening. Half the men of the village stand at the water’s edge and the rest are concealed and ready to attack if the intruders should prove to be ‘unfriendly’.
A boat leaves the ship and six men are sitting in it. When they come closer, Karana sees they have bone ornaments ‘thrust through their noses’. Behind them in the boat there is a tall man standing and he has a yellow beard. Karana has never seen a Russian before, but her father has told her of them and she wonders if this man is one and ‘if he were one of those men from the north whom our people feared’.
This man jumps out of the boat when they reach the shore and shouts in a different language. He speaks their language after this and says he comes in peace. Karana’s father has been hidden, but now comes down the beach and thrusts his spear in the sand. He tells him he is Chief of Ghalas-at and that his name is Chief Chowig. Karana is surprised he has given his real name to a stranger as they all have two names and one of them is secret, and if used too often it loses its magic. She explains (to the readers) that she is known as Won-a-pa-lei, The Girl with the Long Black Hair, and her secret name is Karana.
The Russian man smiles and says he calls himself Captain Orlov and that he has come with 40 men. They have come to hunt the sea otter. They wish to camp on their island while they are hunting. Karana’s father says nothing and remembers when the Aleuts came to hunt before.
Captain Orlov reacts to his silence and says he has heard of another time of a hunt which was led by Captain Mitriff, ‘“who was a fool and is now dead”’. The trouble came when the men of the island had to do the hunting and Karana’s father says they were expected to hunt from one moon to the next without stopping. Captain Orlov says this time they do not have to do anything. His men will hunt and divide the catch with the islanders: ‘“One part for you, to be paid in goods, and two parts for us.”’ Karana’s father says the parts must be equal and the captain says they can speak of this later. Her father insists and the captain asks why they have to give them anything as the sea is not theirs. Her father says ‘“no, only that which touches the island and where the otter lives.”’ Finally, Captain Orlov agrees to equal parts.
In her excitement, Karana gets up and a small rock falls down the cliff to the captain’s feet and everyone looks up. She runs off to the mesa.
In Chapter Two, Captain Orlov and the Aleuts move on to the island that morning and Karana’s father agrees they may move to higher ground as the beach floods when the tide comes in.
The island is described as being two leagues long and one league wide. It is shaped like a dolphin ‘lying on its side, with its tail pointing to the sunset’. It may have been called the Island of the Blue Dolphins because of this, or because many dolphins live in the sea. It is also windy there, almost every day, and because of this ‘the hills are polished smooth’ and the trees are small. Their village is east of the hills near Coral Grove and close to a good spring.
The Aleuts put up their camp about half a league north near another spring. That night her father warns everyone against visiting them and says they are people ‘“who do not understand friendship”’ and ‘“are people of the same tribe that caused trouble many years ago”’. They obey him, but still observe them and know what they are doing. Karana’s sister, Ulape, swears there is an Aleut girl among the hunters. No one believes her and they laugh at the idea of hunters bringing their wives.
The Aleuts also watch them and notice when the villagers unexpectedly catch a school of bass that come up on to the rocks. Two Aleuts men come to the village and ask to speak to her father. They ask for two of the fish and her father stays firm and says they have brought their own food and are also hunters so can catch their own. One of the Aleuts says Captain Orlov will hear of this refusal. The villagers eat the rest of the fish that night and rejoice. The chapter ends with a foreshadowing of events, in that their ‘good fortune would soon bring trouble to Ghalas-at’.
Analysis – Chapter One and Chapter Two
This is an extremely successful novel for young adults and is based loosely on a true story. At least part of the appeal of this work may lie in the first-person narrator, Karana, being only twelve. Her version of events is necessarily dominant, as we are given the story from her perspective, and so we see what she does and are privy to her thoughts. For this narration to be effective, the language and tone used are that of a young person and so the vocabulary and style are relatively simple to follow.
The narrative begins at a point of tension as a ship is sighted and we are warned early on that these men are potential enemies. This suggestion of fear is made more concrete in Chapter Two when Karana expresses surprise at her father giving these men his secret name. This sense of doom is reiterated at the end of Chapter Two when it is narrated that their ‘good fortune would soon bring trouble to Ghalas-at’.