The twelve-year-olds were hot and boisterous funneling back into their classroom after lunch recess. They had been dodging balls and swinging on bars out on the playground of crushed granite. Standing at the door, shooing them inside, was a gray-haired woman with a kindly smile. She had little trouble because the kids knew it was time to hear her read the next chapter of the book that had captured their imagination over the previous weeks.
The woman’s name was Mrs. Geissler and she taught the sixth grade at San Miguel Elementary School in Lemon Grove, California. The book she was reading was Island of the Blue Dolphins, and one of those students eager to hear the next chapter was me. (That's me in the second row from the bottom, second from the right with the blue shirt.)
When I started in Mrs. Geissler’s class I hadn’t been doing well in school, nor was I much of a reader. I spent more time watching Batman and the space program on TV, listening to my transistor radio, and annoying our unfortunate neighbors with my new trumpet. But Mrs. Geissler’s reading of Island of the Blue Dolphins caught me. For the first time, I was in book love—I couldn’t wait to hear what happened next.
What led me to recollect this long-ago time was Facebook. Through Facebook, I reconnected with former classmates from my San Miguel Elementary Class of 1966. We got to reminiscing and lit upon the subject of Mrs. Geissler’s after-lunch readings.
I remembered only a few details of the book—that an island girl and her brother had become stranded on an island, that he had died, and something about dogs. Mostly I remember the feeling of the story. There was beauty and desolation, and the girl had to do everything herself or die.
One of my classmates from San Miguel is Paula Novell Straus, who is now a teacher herself. She remembered Mrs. Geissler’s reading this way:
She used to read after lunch, usually a chapter, but we occasionally got her to read more because we were so engrossed in the plot. She fell for it when we begged her. If a chapter was really long, we didn't get to hear the whole thing, and were impatient for the next day. It took us a good month to get through the book it seems. We didn't have to stop and discuss it like I now have to do as a teacher. We just got to lay our heads down on our desks and be carried away to another time. She didn't ask us the author's purpose, have us look for similes or metaphors, find supporting details, or figure out the resolution of the conflicts. We just got to be.....
Four decades later, still in love
It occurred to me during these Facebook exchanges that I should read the book again—42 years later—and see what I thought of it today. Because I’m such an audiobook fan, and because originally we heard the book, I downloaded Island of the Blue Dolphins from Audible. Also, I ordered two copies of the printed book—an original 1960s-era version with its familiar dust jacket, and a modern hardcover, beautifully illustrated by Ted Lewin.
After I hit play on my iPod, it took only moments to be taken in again. A few bars of music set the stage and then the magical voice of Tantoo Cardinal carried me back to the island that had captured my imagination as a lad. Cardinal is a Canadian film and television actress, with Dances with Wolves and Legends of the Fall to her credit. Her first-person reading of the young Karana is perfectly cast.
As for the writing, it has a spare, simple, E. B. White style that is well-suited to a story as it might actually have been told by a young Native American. As an adult, I can see why the book has lasted. It deals with enduring themes of wilderness versus civilization, peacetime and war, lives balanced with nature versus nature’s exploitation, gender prejudice and smashed stereotypes.
When he penned this tale, the author Scott O’Dell was in his 60s. He was a career newspaperman and local historian. He had sailed the waters off the California coastline and heard a story of a young girl who had been stranded on her island. The Island of the Blue Dolphins was his first children’s book and it won the Newbery award in 1961. He wrote plenty of children’s books afterwards, but this remains his most well known. I see from the old dust jacket that O’Dell had lived in Julian, California, a few miles inland from our school. He could have driven over after breakfast and visited when Mrs. Geissler was reading.
How do you thank a teacher?
It was in Mrs. Geissler’s class that I started, for the first time, doing well in school. We had to write a paper on a country. I chose Mexico and got an A. Another student accused me of being “a brain.” It was the first time anyone had cast such an aspersion my way, and it shocked me.
Mrs. Geissler gave me my first drink of literature and it was salty and wild tasting. It came with the sound of waves crashing and the iridescence of clothes made of cormorant feathers. My classmate Paula looked up Mrs. Geissler in school records and found she passed away in 1978, long before I thought to thank her.
Now I’m buying Island of the Blue Dolphins for some parents I know. Perhaps if they read it to their children, they too will be transported.