Karen Christie

Rereading the Book that Hooked Me on Reading

Mornings, many folks brew coffee, do yoga stretches, or make bulleted lists.  I open my computer and watch signed poems or open a book and read.  As a college professor, I taught and analyzed literature in both American Sign Language and English for over twenty five years. Yet, reading in English, the first language I was exposed to as a child, did not come easily. Deaf and mainstreamed in elementary school, I was always in the lowest reading group. Understanding words, which dissipated as soon as they were puffed and leaked out of mouths, was near impossible. Those that appeared on the page were more concrete, but for a long time I could only grasp them with my eyes, not my mind. It was puzzling to me how in all of those words, I could discover a story. Only later was I able to scan lines which sparked visions of other people, their thoughts and their journeys.

I think many people remember that first book—the book that unlocked the door to this otherworldly experience of reading. Once during a presentation, DeafBlind poet John Lee Clark told about challenging himself to read the thickest book in the store—which turned out to be The Far Pavilions (by M.M. Kaye)—and how this book gave him a glimpse into the tantalizing world of sword fights and sex. Deaf literary artist Patrick Graybill has often reminisced about the first book he read independently about a dog who was described in the opening line as “a cur.” To find out what this meant, his mother introduced him to the dictionary, and from there he read on and found meaning.

For me, that book was the Island of the Blue Dolphins (by Scott O’Dell). While at a book sale recently (a whole bag of books for $3.00!), I came upon the familiar book cover as if encountering the portrait of a family member. The cover illustration was of a young girl with long black hair and beautiful eyes like Cher from the 1960s. I know I wished, at the time I first read this book, to look like her. I remember that her name was similar to mine and that she lived alone on an island with a beloved dog. I don’t remember where I first picked up this book, whether it was in my classroom or library, but it was a Newbery Award Winner (given to honor a children’s book by a library association). It was likely prominently displayed somewhere. However, I do know, with all certainty, that it happened when I was in the sixth grade. My sixth grade was during the years of 1965-1966—a time of the Beatles, the Vietnam war, Watts riots, and Martin Luther King, Jr’s civil rights marches.  For me, it was also a time heading into adolescence (at the end of sixth grade I had grown to my adult height of 5’ 7”, gotten my first behind the ear hearing aids, my first bra, my first period) and some significant family deaths (both grandfathers, a beloved great-Aunt). I was the only Deaf girl in my school—but at that time, I simply thought of myself as a Hearing girl who couldn’t hear very well. Curious about seeing if I could find out how my sixth grade self related to the story in the book, I dropped it in my bag.

Island of the Blue Dolphins is about a young girl named Karana (my name is Karen!) and she lived on an island off the coast of California (I lived in California!). She was known also as the girl with long black hair (I wished I had long black hair!). Very early in the story, all of her people leave the island because of encroaching threats from white hunters. Onboard the ship sailing away, Karana notices her younger brother left behind on the shore. (I wished I had a younger brother instead of a mean older brother). In desperation, she dives in the ocean and swims back to the island to be with her brother (I love swimming! I love the ocean, and wish I were brave). A while later, her brother dies and she is alone on the island.  She realizes her people are not coming back to rescue her. (Once my older brother told me my parents had died, were never coming home, and he wasn’t letting me in the house. I sat on my front porch crying…wondering what I was going to do, how I was going to survive!). Karena captures one of the wild dogs that roam the island and makes him her friend (I love my dogs, they are my best friends!)  Over the years, she creates a home, gathers food, and adopts birds and sea otters as companions (I wish I were independent, clever and had more animal friends!). Years pass, and while she has had infrequent visits from ships of white men, she is always able to hide until they leave. One day, she decides the next time the ships come she will not hide, but go with them, and so she does (I’m afraid for her as she leaves, but she is lonely. Like the teenagers who leave home, I guess she’s ready for a new adventure). Thus ends the story (but I don’t know what will happen to her!  Will she be happy and find her family again? I imagine she will). I was a child who longed for happy endings.

While reading this story again, I remember how curious I was about what was happening to Karana. The words simply became stepping stones on a path I was traveling with my eyes far up ahead. What truly surprised me was the Author’s Note, which I doubt I read as a child. It seems this story was based on fact, the woman called “The Lost Woman of San Nicolas” who lived alone on an island off the coast of California from 1835 to 1853 (18 years!). All of her people who left the island and were brought to the mainland had died by the time she came. After arriving at the Santa Barbara mission, one of the priests tried to communicate with her and there was this sentence: “..he learned little else from her, for she spoke to him only in signs: neither he nor the Indians at the mission could understand her strange language..” Seeking further information about her online, I discover she is said to have died there, only 7 weeks after leaving her island home.

While re-reading this book, there were times that memory-feelings from my childhood drifted up to the surface.  I was reminded that I still love swimming and dogs, I still wish I were brave, self-sufficient, and had long black hair. And I too, for 18 years of my life, was alone on an island—but my island was filled with people who spoke a strange language. The new adventure I sought led me to a happier ending, I found my people. From them, I learned my language and the world of signs, words and literature blew open.

O’Dell, Scott. (1960). Island of the Blue Dolphins. Cambridge, MA:  The Riverside Press/Houghton Mifflin Company.

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About the Author

Karen Christie (she/her) (name sign, KC) is a Deaf white womxn who grew up in California. She taught Deaf Cultural Studies and English at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf/Rochester Institute of Technology. In addition to creating educational websites (see deafwomeninhistory.wordpress.com, heartdeaf.com, and usdeafhistory.com), she has published poetry in Deaf Lit Extravaganza, White Space Anthology, Poetry International, and Nine Mile Magazine. She reads a lot—books, blogs, ballads, billboards, bulletins, beer bottles—besides stuff that starts with b.