Review of the Day: The Music of Dolphins
I have a list of "Oddly Written Books" that I look at once in a while and select a title from. I keep meaning to read more Karen Hesse but firmly entrenched in the deepest reptilian portions of my brain is a voice that constantly points out to me that if I were ten at this moment in time (a thought that, in and of itself, boggles the mind) I'd probably hate her work. But I am not ten. I am twenty-seven. And my ten-year-old self was far more prone to read a collection of "Pogo" cartoons than "Anne of Green Gables" so I hardly trust my own instincts anymore. In any case, here's the review:
As a girl, I never really went in for dolphin stuff. Other girls did. They'd read "Island of the Blue Dolphins" and "A Ring of Endless Light" just to feel like they had some kind of connection to those slippery sea-mammals. Had "The Music of Dolphins" existed when I as growing up, I've little doubt I would have written it off as yet another girl-loves-dolphins tale. It is that, to some extent, but it's also a mighty fine foray into what it means to be a human being. Now I've always kept a wary distance from Karen Hesse. I've read her "Out of the Dust" and respected it without really falling whole-heartedly in love with it. "Dolphins" is more accessible than "Out of the Dust" and is probably the best beloved out of all of Hesse's work (as other reviews here will attest). It's your average death of innocence story but without the usual ain't-humanity-grand ending.
When Mila is discovered by the Coast Guard on a remote island between Florida and Cuba, she is instantly a celebrity. One of the rare "wild children" found in the world and raised sometimes by animals, Mila has been living with a school of dolphins since she was a very young girl. She is instantly claimed by the American government and put under the care of Dr. Elizabeth Beck, a research professor of cognitive and neural systems. Throughout the book we watch as Mila moves from simple ideas and words to far more complex reasonings and sentences. She lives in a facility with Shay, a girl raised wild like Mila but trapped in a dark room by her mother for most of her life. As Mila progresses, Shay regresses. It is only as Mila understands her role in the world and where she truly wishes to belong that she is able to break free of the laboratory setting and find her way back to her original family.
Of course, the book this reminded me of right off the bat was Jane Yolen's 1984 fellow wild-child title, "Children of the Wolf". It doesn't take much in the way of brain power to work out that that particular book was far more lupine and less than friendly than Hesse's contribution to the genre. Hesse makes gentle comparisons between Shay's situation when growing up and Mila's. Dolphins are uniquely caring creatures so it doesn't seem too much of a stretch to assume that they might go one step further and care for a baby human should the need arise. In her note to the book, Hesse had this to say of the story: "The Music of Dolphins began as a book about speak development, and evolved into something very different... Mila proved to me she was more than a clinical specimen, just as she did to the characters in the book".
There are some loose ends, of course. It's a little difficult to believe that dolphins would understand basic human needs like fresh water and the fact that fish bones get caught in infant throats. There's also the ending. I'll give some of it away so if you're looking to be surprised, go no further. In the end Mila joins her dolphin family once more and lives happily ever after, the end. Of course, Dr. Beck has been threatened with jail time if Mila is ever allowed to go free. We never learn what happens to Dr. Beck, and I suppose that's for the best. Mila certainly doesn't care and her willingness to forgo the charms of the human world is convincing.
Admittedly, this was not one of Hesse's stronger books. It's perfectly nice and well-written and everything, but aside from those readers with a strong affinity for dolphin tales, Hesse will be better remembered for her "Witnesss", "Out of the Dust", and "Letters From Rifka". It's a nice tale and a good idea. Nothing spectacular. Just nice.