Study Guide Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell

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Secret names
Karana’s tribe usually indicated whether or not they trusted someone by whether or not they told that person their secret name. They believed that telling the wrong person one’s secret name was unwise.

The rest of the tribe thought it was unwise for Chief Chowig to tell Captain Orlov his secret name. And what happened showed that they were right. There was a fight and many of the tribe’s men were killed.

When Karana first met Tutok, the Aleut girl, she did not give her her secret name. Then when she trusted her, she showed that trust by telling her her secret name. Tutok proved herself to be a good friend. She did not lead her people to Karana. Karana was wise to trust her.

Thin line of blue clay on face
A thin line of blue clay on her face indicates that a woman in Karana’s tribe, the Ghalas-at, is unmarried. In a larger sense it also means that the woman is a member of the Ghalas-at tribe. When Karana put a thin line of blue clay on her face as she prepared to leave the island, she wanted to show the outside world that she was a member of the Ghalas-at tribe as much as she wanted to show that she was unmarried.

Dolphins symbolize good fortune to Karana. Toward the end of chapter 10, she says that blue dolphins took her home to the island. At the end of the book, she implies that the dolphins that swam before the ship were indicators of good luck. That was a good, upbeat ending to the book.

When Scott O’Dell’s ashes were buried at sea after his death in 1989, dolphins accompanied the ship back to shore in a perfect tribute to the author.


No repetition of unhelpful actions
Karana turned away from courses of action that were not helpful. This occurred when she decided not to make a second attempt to “look for the country that lay beyond the ocean” in a canoe. It occurred when she decided not to kill the leader of the wild dogs. It occurred when she stopped hunting devilfish. It occurred when she decided to never again return to the cave with the skeleton in it. It occurred when she decided to no longer try to kill a sea elephant.


The trees on the island
Karana’s description of the trees on the island gives us an idea of how difficult life there is.

The author uses the color red for the sail of the Aleut/Russian ship because it brings forth the image of blood. (Possibly the author was influenced by the frequent use of the word “Reds” to describe the Russians in the days that he was writing this story.)

Scott O’Dell uses fog to convey to us the image of spirits at the beginning of chapter 9. Karana tells us “It made shapes as it drifted and it reminded me of all the people who were dead and those who were gone.”

Sunless sky
At the beginning of chapter 4, the chapter in which the massacre occurs, the weather is described as a “sunless day.” This is a clue to what will happen that day.

At the end of chapter 11, the author uses our memories of smells to take us into the scene that he is describing. He says “The smell of the tide pools was strong. Sweet odors came from the wild grasses in the ravines and from the sand plants on the dunes.”


As Karana gathers more animal members into her family, we are aware that she really wants a family of her own.


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