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"The Music of Dolphins": An Elegant Commentary on Human Nature and Its Flaws

Ryan loves to read and review literature. He writes book reviews in his spare time.

"The Music of Dolphins" by Karen Hesse

"The Music of Dolphins" by Karen Hesse

The Music of Dolphins

The Music of Dolphins was written in 1996 by Karen Hesse. Perhaps you've read it; it is a Scholastic book, and I remember getting it at a Scholastic book fair and proceeding to read it in a single afternoon when I was a kid. There's a certain innocence about the memory—about just sitting down at the sun-dappled dining table we had at the house where I grew up and reading without any other care or worry in the world.

The book stuck with me through the years, and when my neighbor's kids came over, I decided to read it to them, as they like being read to. And despite the years that have passed, and despite it being a book aimed at children, The Music of Dolphins is still a powerful and deep work—a reminder that age is no limit for knowledge and wisdom.

In fact, The Music of Dolphins has aged surprisingly well and has become more relevant with the passing of time. The past two and a half decades in the United States have witnessed an explosion of questions concerning identity and what it means to be authentic, bound up with racial matters, assimilation, and ethnic pride.

Of course, there is not the same ethnic question bound up in Hesse's novel, which involves a girl trying to fit into human society from her life among dolphins, but the questions that she poses to herself about whether she will ever feel accepted among her new people after having "abandoned" her old are ones that are debated more and more today. What is it that Mila, the dolphin girl, loses, gains, and experiences as she moves from being a dolphin to being a human—and can she ever really hope to belong to the latter group?

Plot Synopsis

Mila is taken against her will, although the people who take her are seeking to help her. A pod of dolphins adopted her after she was lost at sea as a very young girl. Now around 11 years old, ragged, and disheveled, she is brought to a research center for feral children. The goal of the researchers in charge of her is to try to assimilate her back into society, but at heart, they are of course doing it to study feral children—to learn about them in order to find out about human behavior and learning.

Perhaps more than a bit of suspension of disbelief is required to understand Mila's origin—a girl surviving for the best part of 10 years with dolphins and cays being her sole succor is doubtful indeed. The end of the book (spoiler alert), involving the return of Mila to the wild, is equally dubious; I can't imagine any government permitting such a decision to be made by a girl who has not yet attained the age of maturity. But these brushes with the imaginary are more than well worth it for the story that the author beautifully constructs.

The Cays between the United States, the Bahamas, and Cuba might be beautiful, but I have huge doubts about whether they would be sufficient for water and shelter for an isolated girl sustained only by dolphins.

The Cays between the United States, the Bahamas, and Cuba might be beautiful, but I have huge doubts about whether they would be sufficient for water and shelter for an isolated girl sustained only by dolphins.

Review and Analysis

There is more than a bit of the ideal of the noble savage present in this book—the idea that humans set apart from our industrial civilization are purer, more innocent, and less violent. For Mila, after all, the concepts of anger, hatred, property, and greed, are all unknown; for her, there is only simplicity and bucolic existence among the dolphins. She has to learn the concept of bad and good from humans. Good is a word that she repeats over and over again in her early period of learning—good, good boots, good sea, good hands. The concept of good and evil is hammered into her as soon as she arrives on human shores.

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But there's also the complication that the book includes Shay, who is much more troubled than Mila and, like her, is a feral child. But the distinction made is that Shay is not a social creature—Shay has been locked away in a room for her whole life rather than socialized with the dolphins. The point that the book tries to make—the idea of the noble savage—is that removed from the debilitating influences of civilization, there is a purer and more innocent way of life.

In this sense, the book is a critique of corruption and greed, which lie at the heart of our society. The humans who are "helping" Mila, who are her guardians, Dr. Troy and Dr. Beck, are, at heart, less interested in Mila than what Mila represents. She gives them the ability to learn about the time with the dolphins and the way dolphins speak. It is this inquisitive nature that begins the long process of Mila's decline.

At heart, the human relationship with her is based upon greed—upon using her to learn about the dolphins—rather than Mila herself. Well, not entirely—Sandy and Justin can overcome this, and Mr. Aradondo can even grow to appreciate Mila, but it is a herculean effort for Drs. Troy and Beck to see Mila as an individual rather than as a test subject. Hesse's book is an indictment of using the individual as a means to an end and the objectivation of a person that inevitably entails. Dr. Beck is directly referred to as a hungry orca.

I admire the way that The Music of Dolphins is written, cleverly showing the way in which Mila's language and her descriptions of the world around her change over time, starting out as painfully simple and full of grammatical errors and gradually developing to be more and more complex and poetic while still maintaining the heart of the imagery of her life from the sea.

The changes in the text size and the style of writing give a deepness and complexity to the story that is touching, and it becomes remarkably beautiful indeed in its scenes of nature and people at the height of its sophistication in the middle and the end of the book. But it is a beauty that is not idle and that is bound up with the development of Mila. It isn't a complicated book to read; it's "only" a Scholastic novel, but it is beautifully written nevertheless.

The characters within, I feel, are beautiful too. I dislike many books that attempt to elicit the sympathy of the reader for the character without justification merely to pull upon our heartstrings. The sympathy that we feel for Mila is not like this because it exists for reasons that are integral to the story's meaning. Her evolution as a character feels very real and natural in its progression.

Furthermore, the people around her are also people who develop naturally and who we develop genuine sympathy for; they are not cardboard cutouts. People like Justin, the teenage son of Dr. Beck, feel real in their petty grievances and grudges and in their analysis and thoughts on their situation. Sandy's growing attachment to Mila feels real, and the case of Shay is both natural in its feeling and tragic in its outcome.

Most books for children are happy, but The Music of Dolphins is profoundly melancholy. I wouldn't say it's necessarily sad or tragic, but melancholy aptly describes the condition of when all doesn't turn out well—when we face struggles and tragedy—and when the result is that our hopes are dashed even as we follow our heart. A famous expression is that the saddest thing is what might have been, and The Music of Dolphins forces us to choose between options that are irreconcilable—the return of Mila to the sea, to the dolphins, and to her family there or the assimilation into human life. The ending is an unlikely one—perhaps one about her visiting the dolphins rather than returning the dolphin might have been more likely—but it is an accurate reflection of Mila's spiritual state. Mila has no ability to hedge and negotiate between the world of the dolphins and the world of man—she must choose one or the other. In a civilization heavily focused on duality, this makes the novel powerful to use and also makes it melancholy. For all of our power, or perhaps because of it, there are limits we cannot overcome, and the civilization we are so proud of might be worse than the simple, primitive state of Mila among the dolphins.

The Takeaway

On its face, The Music of Dolphins is a short book and one which can be powered through in an afternoon. But it raises important questions and deals with important concepts surrounding identity, human nature, and nature itself—or at least humanity's relationship to our more similar denizens such as dolphins—and the objectivation of individuals as we seek to pursue our own narrow-minded and egotistical aims. What is the difference between seeking to learn from and taking from—a person's knowledge and experiences while treating them ethically in doing so? It is a romantic, charming, sweet, innocent, and powerful novel and one that I recommend to anybody—not just to children.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Ryan C Thomas

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