Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Alone on the Island of the Blue Dolphins: The True Story Behind the Beloved Novel

It seems hard to fathom how Scott O’Dell’s Newbery Award-winning Island of the Blue Dolphins missed the cut for PBS’s Great American Read, but a likely culprit could well be the “Own Voices” movement striving to racially segregate literature. O’Dell was not Native American, nor was he ever castaway on a small island. However, his classic YA novel was indeed based on a historical figure. Director-producer-screenwriter Paul Goldsmith and a specialized core group of archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians examine the evidence left behind by the “Lone Woman of San Nicholas Island” in Alone on the Island of Blue Dolphins, which releases today on DVD.

It is still unclear why the castaway woman (eventually baptized Juana Maria) was not on the boat that ferried the rest of the transplanted Native population off San Nicholas Island, but it is well understood why nobody came back until years later. The island itself is basically a handful of sand dunes perched in the middle of some genuinely treacherous currents and wind patterns. The only local vessel sufficiently sea-worthy met with disaster shortly after conveying the rest of the former San Nicholas population. Most just assumed she perished, but she survived and even thrived living among the remaining dogs, foxes, sea lions, and plentiful shellfish.

The Navy archaeologists who have jurisdiction over San Nicholas show viewers landmarks on the island that conform to passages in O’Dell’s book and other historical documents. Basically, the various social scientists largely confirm what we think we know about the woman who inspired Karana. Rather remarkably, they manage to deepen our understanding of her as a flesh-and-blood person, without undermining any of the book’s mystique, which is a nice trick.

In fact, everyone associated with the film seems to have their hearts in the right place. Everyone is scrupulously sensitive to Native cultures, but they also show respect to George Nidever, the hunter-sailor who “saved” Juana Maria, or at least returned her to human company, for his protective treatment. There is no kneejerk demonization here, even though her final weeks were surely frustrating. Indeed, the film is admirably adept at finding new perspectives.

Goldsmith’s approach is totally straight-forward, with a look and vibe not unlike television journalism (if it still exists). Nevertheless, the considerable time he spends on San Nicholas definitely stimulates the imagination and vicariously puts viewers in the Lone Woman’s footsteps. The doc itself clocks in just under an hour, but it is still quite a worthy project. Highly recommended for fans of O’Dell’s book and aspiring students of archaeology, Alone on the Island of Blue Dolphins releases today (8/21) on DVD, from First Run Features.