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FOR ADULTS, A SPIRITUAL SEEKER'S SURVIVAL GUIDE
am 15. Juli 2000
Reviewer: Cory Giacobbe
As vortexes of parents and children whirl through the latest Harry Potter book, I wanted to honor a less-publicized gem. Mr. O'Dell's classic work seems to have attracted a quiet pool of devoted readership, including adults.
Unless grammar school students are worked with closely, this true story's beauty will evade most of them. This is due to the deceptive simplicity of style. Mr. O'Dell has an amazing gift for sophisticated subtext.
In some prior reviews, children call the book "dull." They rebel against, what they see as, ridiculously inane actions by the main character: spearing dinner, going for a swim, etc. They see her offering little emotion, plot.
In reality, what a powerful world Scott O'Dell is evoking!
The main character spends much time, traumatized. Mr. O'Dell uses common activity, to mask overwhelming emotions the young girl has trouble confronting -- initially she runs away from each problem, by fastening to familiar actions that first comfort her. Gradually, they provoke her into creative-thinking, evolving the storyline.
The gist: For eighteen years (1835 - 1853) from age twelve to thirty, Karana (public name, Won-a-pa-lei) the main character, must fend for herself on an abandoned island.
I was never aware of Mr. O'Dell's books, when I was a pre-adolescent girl. I love the subtle craftwork: the author's masterful use of the passive voice, as counterbalance to each trauma it is veiling; his weather-descriptions tracking many characters' inner turmoil or serenity; the minimal use of thought-processes, his letting each character's -- even the wild dogs' -- physical action reveal intense emotion.
It requires time to absorb content.
For example, the author delicately lets drop one same phrase, throughout various scenes. The girl keeps returning to the thought, that she is able to scare away some dogs, "but not the leader ...." She even accomplishes killing a few dogs, "but not the leader ...." Those repetitive, hypnotic words become her meditative koan, an obsession, initially concealing her vengeful, murderous state of mind, her goal of attack. This mindset is at odds with the quiet, constructive work of building a home, appreciating nature, in which she is otherwise engaged.
Because feelings are understated, one rare, overtly dramatic moment is unexpected and memorable --
I first came upon the book a few months after my dog of over 20 (human) years had died. The story was cathartic. Even years later, Chapter 25 moves me. Karana's love for her dog resonates. There's that one outpouring of anguish, the most explicitly emotional, explosive line in the whole book, "Rontu ... oh, Rontu!" It still puts a lump in my throat.
Even more than its indirect, magnificent plea for respect to all creatures, the text explores this ironic theme, the gift of loss. Karana must confront her anger at not just the choices by others, but her own, impactng her life.
One must read between the quiet lines to see that her father is a mirror-image of the gruff, selfish Russian captain, his interloping foe. Preoccupied villagers, their successive leaders, lack empathy and foresight. They dismiss the sufferings of wounded otters; of neglected pet dogs forced to turn wild; of a distressed sibling of Karana, where they even try to prevent her from helping.
Thus, no nurturing models exist for Karana, motherless even as the book opens. The village women, including her sister, act venomously. In battle, rocks are flung "from many places along the cliffs." It's a subtle hint. Earlier the author has already revealed, these are the hiding-places of the women. This passive-assertive aggression Karana must learn to purify, re-direct towards higher purposes, afterwards.
In examining her heritage, and the culture of strangers, she realizes she must carve her own way. She reminds me very much of long-time seekers. Many of us grasped with mingled fear and sadness, even anger, then with freeing awareness, that our legacies, Eastern or Western, including modern New Thought, may exhibit rigidity.
From two centuries past, here is Karana, reminding us that this fresh minted millennium is calling for resilience and courage.
From her to us is the gift of the secret name.
The author lets her blurt, to us, her own hidden name, Karana. She is bonded to us; she is our mirror. Her challenges, our (inner) ones.
The author also implies that, only when Karana drops pride, is the girl able to sense that the secret name for loss is: blessing-in-disguise. She is proud that she is not so vain as her sister. Yet she herself, after diving from the ship, lets her basket of precious ornaments and tools, her prized, fancy yucca skirt, drag her down, almost drowning her, until she realizes only if she lets go, will she rise.
Even the island has a secret name.
It has been known to the world by Spanish explorers since 1602 as Isla de San Nicholas. Karana cherishes its private label, Island of the Blue Dolphins. The name gives her hope, strength, for she considers dolphins her friends.
How ironic. An island, that reportedly became a secretly titled naval base, for defensive military maneuvers/experiments, once was graced by the presence of Karana. She had set aside her own defenses, and experienced oneness with her world. Her story reflects the very code of Franciscan harmlessness, integral to the path of the friar, she later meets.
Mr. O'Dell never explains what the personal name, "Karana," might be. For me, the book illumines that there is a secret name for each of us: one dominant, beautiful quality of soul radiating, that defines who you are. In some way, Karana's secret name must surely mean "compassion."