Adrift in a sea of fiction

Times Staff Writer

The best-known castaways — Tom Hanks and his volleyball, for example, and Robinson Crusoe — come from the world of make-believe. One way to tolerate the idea of enduring years without human contact, apparently, is to fictionalize it. Daniel Defoe transformed Scotsman Alexander Selkirk, who spent four years on an island off Chile, into Crusoe — and gave him a sidekick for company. In the early 1960s, Scott O’Dell converted the Lone Woman’s tale into a popular children’s novel, “Island of the Blue Dolphins.”

This idealized version, about a stranded girl who makes friends with the animals on her island, is a long-running hit on the elementary school circuit, where two generations of fourth-graders have followed her adventures. O’Dell’s weaving of fact and fable fools many.

“Professional people who think they know all there is to know about the [Channel] islands think the ‘Blue Dolphin’ story is true,” says San Nicolas archeologist Steven Schwartz. “I’ve gone on the Web … and you can get all kinds of things about how that book is how it happened. It is so untrue. A lot of the information we know came out after the book.”


O’Dell uses the legend’s dramatic dive overboard as a central device — in this case, the girl goes back for her brother. In the novel, the Nicoleños flee to avoid the arrival of vicious otter hunters, who did play a role on the island, just not this one. The girl suffers many trials but is eventually rescued. She lives on to star in a sequel, “Zia.”

Schwartz knows he’s up against a gripping narrative.

“When people want me to talk, they’re always so disappointed, because I just give them the facts. “

— Joe Robinson