May 23 - Happy Birthday, Scott O'Dell

Posted on May 23, 2020

About a million years ago, when I was in elementary (or grammar) school, every schoolchild in California (it seemed) was reading this amazing book called Island of the Blue Dolphins.

It was about a 12-year-old Native American girl who was  stranded all alone on an island - for years!

This fiction story of courage and survival won the 1961 Newbery Medal and was required reading for California students for some years. Amazingly, it was based on a true story: a Nicoleño Native American woman was left alone for 18 years on San Nicolas Island in the 1800s!! And when the woman was finally discovered and taken to the mainland, in 1853, nobody spoke her language!

What caused author Scott O'Dell (born on this date in 1898) to write this story?

Well, O'Dell was born in California. He was actually born on Rattlesnake Island, near Los Angles. His family lived for a time on Rattlesnake Island, in a house built on stilts, and at high tide they could hear the waves washing the shore below their house.

Rattlesnake Island is now called Terminal
Island. Located in Los Angeles Harbor,
it has been enlarged for use in industry
and as a ferry terminal; now it is a mostly-
artificial island.
This background may have helped O'Dell connect to the story of the woman who lived alone on a California island...

O'Dell was a soldier; he joined the army near the end of World War I, and when World War II broke out, he enlisted in the Air Force. 

Between his two bouts of soldiering, O'Dell was quite the Southern California guy - he worked in Hollywood! He read and criticized movie scripts written by amateur writers, he worked in silent movies as a set dresser, and he was even a hand stand-in for Rudolph Valentine in one scene!! He was even a cameraman; he was sent to Italy as a cameraman on a silent version of Ben Hur

He loved Italy and stayed there for a year after the movie shoot ended. He actually lived in a villa where the famous scientist Galileo had once lived.

In Italy, since he wasn't working on movies and he wasn't serving as a soldier, O'Dell had time on his hands. He started to write - and he ended up writing an entire novel.

This first novel was never published (and O'Dell burned the manuscript at some point), but when O'Dell returned to California, he kept writing and writing and writing. He wrote articles, book reviews, a newspaper column, novels, children's novels, and non-fiction books for adults. He was best known for his historical fiction for kids.

By the way, the name "Scott O'Dell" was a mistake. What happened was this: parents May Elizabeth Gabriel and Bennett Mason Scott named their son O'Dell Gabriel Scott. But one of his earliest published articles had a mistake on the byline; the typesetter had mixed up the first and last names, and instead of "by O'Dell Scott" had set "by Scott O'Dell." 

Well, the author liked that mistake! He ended up using the name "Scott O'Dell" for all of his works and changed his named legally for use everywhere when he was in his twenties.

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