Island of the Blue Dolphins

by Wolf Pascoe on January 7, 2013

The past is never dead. It isn’t even past. — William Faulkner

GabrielinoWhat seems a hundred years ago, a man named Scott O’Dell visited my middle school (then called Jr. high.) He was the author of a book called Island of the Blue Dolphins.

The island was a real place, San Nicolas Island, about 70 miles off the coast of Santa Barbara. A native woman, later called Juana Maria, had been found there in 1835. She’d been marooned for 18 years.

Scott O’Dell spoke to the assembled student body in the auditorium. He was not a young man. I recollect a resonant voice and gentle manner, neatly swept-back grey hair, but nothing of what he said about Island of the Blue Dolphins, except regarding the book’s title.

“The dolphins near San Nicolas Island,” he said, “Are blue-green, not blue. But that made for an awkward title, so I shortened it.”

Scott O’Dell’s book won the Newbery Medal a year after it was published, and has become a children’s classic. I was on my Heinlein kick in Jr. high school, however, and didn’t read it.




CeremonyA month or so ago, Nick and I paid a visit to a local high school campus, which, I had recently discovered, contains an archeological site and small museum.

An underground spring runs through the school, bubbling up briefly, then disappearing. Where the spring surfaces a Gabrielino village once existed; the place is called Kuruvungna Springs.

Every year on Columbus day, members of the tribe stage a festival, open to the public, on the site. It’s called “Life Before Columbus Festival.” Nick and I attended this year.

After the ceremonial dancing, I wandered through the museum, housed in a school bungalow. I came across an exhibit about Juana Maria. After her rescue from San Nicolas Island she went to live at Mission Santa Barbara. By all accounts she was happy to be in civilization, but lived only seven weeks after her arrival, succumbing to dysentery.

Her true native name was never known, but Father Gonzales of the mission baptized her before she died, giving her the Spanish name. Her story, the exhibit said, could be found in Scott O’Dell’s novel, Island of the Blue Dolphins.




childrenI was born here, and it gives me pleasure knowing I live near the site of a Gabrielino village.

Gabrielino culture is said to have been focused on the dream world. The Gabrielino spent part of every day discussing the visions of the previous night. Perhaps something in the land made this happen. If so, the same spirit made south California fertile ground for the later culture of motion pictures.

On balmy days, when the Santa Anas blow through town, you sometimes get the feeling that the desert winds are not so much rushing by you as through you. The feeling is augmented, I suppose, if you’ve been born here, and have taken naps as an infant in the lazy sunshine.

You feel closer to the land, and all the asphalt and concrete appear incidental to an older sense of habitation. You almost want to say, as I find myself sometimes saying, I am the dust of this place, and I know what it must have been like, back then, before the orchards and the roads and the adobe houses.

The forces of natural order are still at work. Do not doubt them.




wellOf course, I bought a copy of Island of the Blue Dolphin’s to read to Nick. We started it a few nights ago and it’s wonderful. You can tell, reading it, that Scott O’Dell, born here on Terminal Island, has walked the length and breadth of south California and felt the desert wind blowing in his body.

The book is written in the first person, from Juana Maria’s perspective. What her perspective truly was we can’t of course know. But the perspective in the book is valid and authentic, like all true art.

Here is something else valid: the Kuruvungna Spring.

In a culture of fantasy and re-invention, it’s sometimes hard to separate what seems from what is. A lot of what you see around here is blurry and lifted from storybooks. Sun-kissed photographs of orange groves where the oranges, huge and lovely, are painted.

So I wanted, when Nick and I arrived at the village, to see the spring. There was a sort of pond where some children played, and the water appeared to be flowing. It was advertised as the spring, but how had it got there? Had the original been diverted long ago through pipes and storm drains like the rest of the city’s river? Was water being pumped into the pond for our benefit?

“Come here,” one of the tribe’s women said to me.

She led me a ways off to a shallow well with a circle of bricks around it. The floor of the well was a bowl. At first I thought it was made of concrete, but then I saw it was mud. The water was clear and still, but here and there on the bottom, little clouds of mud formed and re-formed.

“See the little puffs?” she said. “That’s new water–the source of the spring.”

“Where does it come from?”

“Underground,” she said.

Still at work.



If it is attended to



Marooned from the L.A. Times

Gabrielino Tongva Springs Foundation

Advice on Moving to Los Angeles

Painting credit:  “Wiyot’s Children.” Gabrielino Indian Village of Sa-angna, Playa del Rey, CA. by Mary Leighton Thomson. Print may be purchased from Friends of the Ballona Wetlands.




Just Add Father is listening. (Add your thoughts by clicking a few lines below below, where it says comments or add one. I always respond here.)


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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

shelley January 7, 2013 at 12:32 pm

I remember that one, but didn’t read it either when I was young. Can’t remember why. But now I’m so excited to get it and read it to my son!


Wolf Pascoe January 7, 2013 at 8:38 pm

Let me know what your son thinks of it!


privilige of parenting January 7, 2013 at 1:13 pm

I just love this– thank you


Wolf Pascoe January 7, 2013 at 8:16 pm

My privilege.


Barbara January 7, 2013 at 9:03 pm

When I was the elementary school librarian, I became familiar with the cover of this one because we had so many copies. But I admit I never read it! It sounds like my kind of book, though, and I’m going to make a point of reading it now. By the way, your description of the springs reminded me that there’s a well at Zilker Park in Austin where you can see Barton Springs like that before it goes into the pool. At least it used to be there… I hope it still is!


Wolf Pascoe January 8, 2013 at 1:48 am

Go have a look and let me know!


Mitchell Brown January 8, 2013 at 12:09 am

Wonderful. And even though I moved from there nearly 10 years ago now, those afternoon naps during a Santa Ana are some of the things that I miss the most.


Wolf Pascoe January 8, 2013 at 1:49 am

Glad to hear you say that, about the naps. The Santa Anas stir up all sorts of things.


Jim Parkevich January 10, 2013 at 9:19 pm

Hi Wolf,
I have mentioned before that my son, Ryan, is a highly skilled “technical scuba diver” His passion is cave diving in the caverns of northern Fla. He talks with quiet reverence about the magnificence of the caverns, floating in neutral buoyancy, 60 feet above the floor and below the mighty stalactites hanging from the ceiling. His favorite activity is to search the “feed springs” winding thru the caves. He will float motionless, letting the unseen currents move him hundreds of feet across a cavern. He talks about how “alive” the ocean is, forming, shaping the caverns, even though the human eye cannot see the process. In first person, and considering I helped to create him, his stories are like books, read and re-read, wanting to savor every descriptive word.


Wolf Pascoe January 10, 2013 at 10:18 pm

Beautiful. One with the dolphins.


The Exception January 11, 2013 at 7:13 pm

I read the book when I was younger, perhaps even on a trip to California. My mom was not a huge reader but it was a book she said I had to read. My daughter has a copy of her own. It is a fabulous book – I do hope that you continued to enjoy it.


Wolf Pascoe January 12, 2013 at 12:55 am

Fabulous is the right word, as in fabled and beyond dreams.


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