© Estate of Scott O’Dell, illustration not credited.
I discovered the work of Scott O’Dell with his novel “Island of the Blue Dolphins,” of 1960, though I think I read it a year or two later, after it had won the Newbery Medal. I’ve read a number of his other historical novels for children since then. This one from 1980 shares some elements with “Island.” It’s about a young girl who is forced through circumstances to strike out on her own, living alone in the wilderness. Here, the wilderness is in New York State during the time of the American Revolution.
Fifteen-year-old Sarah Bishop’s father is a Tory, and when the war comes to their Long Island neighborhood, his home is burned and he himself is killed. Sarah escapes that persecution for a while, but soon gets into further trouble trying to find her brother, who was fighting on the American side. A British officer suspects Sarah has started a fire in an attempt to free her brother from a prisoner of war camp (she’s innocent), and arrests her. Sarah learns her brother is also dead, and in despair, makes a desperate escape from the British guards, and manages to reach the north shore of Long Island Sound, where she treks north. Fearing the British are searching for her, she sneaks away from a town where she found a few friends and finds refuge in a wild area, making her home in a cave.
Sarah has some skills and some supplies, including a rifle, but a lot happens she’s not prepared for. A bite from a poisonous snake almost kills her, and if not for the help of an Indian family, she would not have been able to survive the harsh winter that’s soon upon her. The appearance of an old enemy on her land is another frightening episode, made worse when he gets his leg caught in one of his own bear traps! Sarah can’t let him die, but doesn’t want to have him stay with her, so it’s a difficult situation.
Later, when things seem to be going better for Sarah, she returns to the town, only to be accused of witchcraft and put on trial. What happens then leads to a surprising ending.
Well written, and I like the way O’Dell handles the terrible things Sarah goes through: very matter of fact, telling all the important details without adding any melodrama. He excels at the descriptions of wilderness wildlife and survival strategies. I also like his ending, which rather than tie everything up neatly, simply points out a direction for some resolution and leaves the reader to figure it out after a bit of reflection.
O’Dell’s historical novel was based on the life of a real woman named Sarah Bishop. I wrote about the earliest accounts of her life here.