This YA Novel Is Based on a True Story—And Its Female Protagonist Is Worth Reading About

This YA Novel Is Based on a True Story—And Its Female Protagonist Is Worth Reading About

If you’re anything like me, or Latina feminist writer Juliana Britto Schwartz, your favorite children’s and young adult books are those that feature complex female protagonists.

And until I read this fascinating article Britto Schwartz wrote for Feministing, I thought I had a good sense of which of my most beloved characters were based in reality and which were fictional.

As it turns out, the young adult novel Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O’Dell, is closely based on a true story. The typical canon of young adult fiction does not include many heroines of color; it is powerful to discover that there is historical truth behind O’Dell’s tale of Karana, an indigenous young woman left behind when her community leaves their native island.

The character of Karana is based on a Tongva woman who spent 18 years living alone on the island of San Nicolas, off the coast of California, after the rest of her tribe was brought to the mainland by the Santa Barbara Mission. As Britto Schwartz chronicles, “She boarded the ship but then realized that her brother or son (accounts vary) had been left behind, and went to find him.” Eighteen years later, the Mission sent out another group of sailors who found her and brought her to the mainland.

As Britto Schwartz points out, historical accounts of the Tongva woman (named Juana Maria by the missionaries) are expectedly racist, referring to her as the “wild woman” and reporting that she had “lost the power of speech” because they did not understand her language. And, tragically, “[w]ithin weeks of arriving on the mainland the woman from San Nicolas died of disease.”

I’m excited to reread Island of the Blue Dolphins, and perhaps to apply the new perspective that Britto Schwartz offers to the true story: “Woman escapes European ship and lives peacefully alone for 18 years before Europeans find her again and abduct her, forcing her to work in a mission and ultimately causing her to die of dysentery.”


Cover image courtesy of Shutterstock.