The Dolphin Girl

What makes us human?  The Music of Dolphins by Karen Hesse asks this question, by looking at the world through the eyes of Mila, a human girl raised by dolphins.

Mila is picked up by the Coast Guard one day, after living in the sea for 13 years.  She’s taken to a facility where scientists help her learn language, skills, and how to live among humans.  The story centers on Mila’s growth as she learns about the human world, and on her longing for the dolphin world she knew.

My favorite part of the book is the way it’s written.  Mila tells her story herself, in a journal, and it changes dramatically as she learns.  The earliest pages are very simple, “Dick and Jane” style writing.  The font size shrinks and the words grow longer and more complex as Mila develops greater skills.  It’s a similar device as Flowers for Algernon.  Mila’s journal is punctuated by three separate passages in Mila’s head, describing her life with the dolphins.

I read this as a child and loved the change in the font and in the words.  Rereading it now, I’m more conscious of the growth in Mila’s character, from a very simplistic view of the world to a growing complexity.  She asks more questions involving “why,” has her own opinions and her own desires, and demands to be seen, not as a test subject, but as a person.

I’m sure this is a more realistic portrayal than Tarzan or The Jungle Book (fun though those are).  I don’t know enough about psychology or dolphins to be able to fully judge how accurate this is, but it feels realistic.  The ending requires a suspension of disbelief, although as a child I don’t think I realized that.  And I still find it a satisfying ending, even if I know now how completely unlikely it is.

This is a short and simply written book–Mila never approaches Shakespeare even at her most complex writing–but despite that, it gets at deep questions.  There’s a character in Pratchett’s Discworld who is described as simple but not stupid.  I think that applies here too.  It’s a simple book, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be profound.

2 thoughts on “The Dolphin Girl

  1. Gloria Gerber, English Teacher

    My grade six students suspended their disbelief in order to enjoy this wonderfully crafted tale of dubious scientific attempts to re-humanize a well adjusted feral child. We engaged in numerous deep and thoughtful discussions surrounding family, society, boundaries, and mores. This is the sort of story children take with them as they question authority and trust their own instincts. Brava, Karen Hesse!

  2. The author probably poses questions about whether human society is something Mila would WANT to enter and how she can possibly adapt to it after going through her formative years in a completely different “culture.” It sounds like an interesting book.

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