Top positive review
A unique and profound story about what it means to be human
Reviewed in the United States on April 12, 2019
I've been slowly making my way through a long list of books recommended to me by a librarian friend of mine. Beyond the interesting premise, what also drew me to this book was the fact that I remember seeing the cover to this at various book fairs at school back in the day. A classic case of a novel I've seen circulated around, but just never read. But at long last, I finally sat down to give it a read, and the story is nothing short of a modern day Tarzan.
Somewhere near the coast of Florida, a young girl is discovered---naked, disheveled, and clearly surviving on her own for years, with next to no knowledge of human language or customs. Upon her rescue, the team of scientists and doctors in charge of her nickname her Mila, and further investigation uncovers that Mila is possibly the only survivor of a plane crash years before, and since then, has been raised by dolphins and living with them. Told entirely from Mila's perspective, we follow her progress as she learns what it's like to be human. But the farther she comes along in her studies, the more the doctors begin to see her as just an oddity to be examined. And the longer she's away from her dolphin family, the more Mila begins to question where she truly belongs. Will she ever fit in with humanity? Or was she actually better off living in the ocean?
I was surprised how short the book actually was. You can finish it in less than two hours. But this novella is none the less unique in its storytelling style as Mila explains her experiences, with earlier chapters starting off as just a few clipped sentences, then gradually turning longer and more detailed as she becomes more literate. The way she describes human commodities is interesting, from TV, to using utensils to eat. And once she learns how to play a recorder, she communicates her feelings primarily through music, the way dolphins do---going so far as to describe other humans in musical terms.
But as time drags on, and the more Mila begins to realize that she'll most likely never be released from the lab, the more she makes comparisons between humans and dolphins---how each species views the world, their social hierarchy, and how they treat each other. It gets to a point where the dolphins arguably have more to teach humans, and treat Mila with more love, tenderness, and humanity than her fellow humans do. When compared to dolphins, when the doctors try to explain how human stuff works, the sillier it actually starts to sound (like coveting goods and territory and fearing the unknown, versus accepting newcomers and new experiences and helping anyone in need). In time, the head doctor's son, Justin, becomes Mila's main ally---inspiring her to advocate for herself the more the staff keeps her imprisoned; viewing her mostly as an experiment. Even Mila, with her limited knowledge of humans, has the foresight to know that she'll always be seen as "the dolphin girl" and nothing more.
My only nitpick is that the ending is left a bit ambiguous and wraps up a bit too neatly. I won't spoil it, but I doubt the final decision the doctors come to (in regards to what to do with Mila) would actually happen in real life. It's hard to tell if you'd even consider it a "happy" ending for Mila. But maybe that was the point. This is a rare and unique situation with no clear answers of what's the best way to treat a child who might as well be coming from an alien world. Is it best to leave her with the world she knows, despite the danger? Or should she potentially be changed into something she isn't?
With wonderful descriptions and a fascinating point of view, this book can be a great teaching tool to help kids and adults alike understand how we can learn from the animal kingdom, and what it truly means to be a decent human being.