Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O'Dell, was published in 1960 and won the John Newbery Award. The novel is based on the true story of a Native American girl in the 1800s who spent 18 years alone on an island off the coast of California. Her tribe abandons Karana when they flee the Russians approaching the island. Karana leaps off the boat to retrieve her younger brother.
As I reread the book, I was struck by its somewhat stilted style. I discovered a lot about what happened to Karana, but it was as if the character held me at arm's length when it came to how she felt. Karana is stoic and not prone to introspection; she does what she must to survive.
The distant narrative approach forced me to observe all the precise, accumulated details of Karana's daily life and draw inferences about her self-sufficiency and loneliness. Although I had to work harder as a reader, O'Dell did a wonderful job of showing rather than telling me what Karana's life was like. I remembered why I had found the book so moving when I was a girl.
Scott O'Dell thought of the book as a female Robinson Crusoe story. It is, but it's so much more too. It's also a coming-of-age story, and the book was ahead of its time in its examination of gender roles and what it means to live in harmony with nature. Karana makes hard decisions to achieve her own happiness, and even if I don't agree with all of them, I came away from the book once again respecting the character and her journey.