The Girl of the Sea of Cortez by Peter Benchley

I read The Girl of the Sea of Cortez as a comprise. I have always been fascinated with Peter Benchley’s novel The Deep; at least, I think I will like reading it. I haven’t read it, but I saw the Nick Nolte and Jacqueline Bisset movie, about a couple vacation in Bermuda.  Being scuba divers, they found a rare coin, and they realized its treasure. They take it to an expert—played by Robert Shaw—who identifies it for them. They also found a more modern treasure—a sunken World Two ship loaded with morphine. Shaw’s character outlined two objects: retrieved the Spanish gold and blow up the morphine. Gangsters became involved, and it turned into a thriller set on the high seas. It was a good movie, and I always meant to read the book because, well, you know the book is better.

Fast forward to 2020, and after decades of wanting to read the book, I finally decided to buy it and read it. Problem was: the book is out-of-print! How come in this age of eReaders, like Amazon Kindle, do books become out-of-print? But it is true, for I wasn’t able to find the book anywhere. Bookstores. Used bookstores. Kindle or The Nook or Kobo. I even checked the library, and yea, they have it, but wait—the format is audio. I don’t do audio! I even check the collector’s sites and other rare books sites, and I found copies of it for $80 or so, but as much as I wanted to read The Deep, I didn’t want to pay $80 for it. 

I found plenty of Jaws, another book by Peter Benchley, which is still in print, but not The Deep. I tried to find it again last year (2022) because I thought the thriller of the high seas would be a good book to read with the limitations of the stroke. Something concrete with lots of action to keep my mind entertained is what I wanted. But this search was even less fruitful than it was in 2020.

I did find The Girl of the Sea of Cortez, and glad I am. With my stroke, I suffered amnesia. I have always been a reader, but now I read to recover information that I lost as well as to learn new information. This novel was perfect for both. For instance, I knew in the old days, before the stroke, the Sea of Cortez was the body of water that separate Baja California from Mexico. Americans call it the Gulf of California. I did not know what a pirogue was. It’s a type of rowboat that resembles a canoe. Something learned and something relearned. 

Paloma was sixteen and the titular character. An orphan who lives with her grandfather and little brother, she spent her days visiting a seamount and studying the creatures that live there. One day, she discovered a giant manta that had been caught in some fishing lines. The mantra freed himself of the lines, but the lines were tangled around his torso, causing him pain and limiting his motion. Paloma untangled the lines for the creature. 

But the next day, her brother, Jo, and his fishing partners showed up to claim the seamount and its fish as their territory. At fourteen, Jo had the ambition to leave this life and go to Mexico City, where he would study electrical engineering. First, he must earn money for his studies, and that meant fishing. The way he and his partners fish was brutal. They claimed every fish they can catch and sorted the sellable fish out later. To Paloma disgust, the unsellable fishes, now deceased, they threw away. 

The environmental message comes through loud and clear. Paloma wanted to preserve this life, but Jo wanted to leave it for a better life, hopefully, elsewhere. The compulsion was understandable, but the way he worked it was dubious. Benchley heightened the tension by making them brother and sister and including a level of sibling rivalry that nears homicidal intensity. The climax came a couple of days later, and it included the giant mantra—remember him—who had a dramatic role to play.

Lying on the water, face down, with her snorkel poking up behind her head, she took half a dozen deep breaths, each one expanding her lungs farther than the one before. After the last breath, she inhaled until she felt was about to burst, clamped her mouth shut and dived for the bottom. She pulled hersefl hand over hand down the achor line and pushed herself with pownerful, smooth strokes of her flippers. As she plunged downward, she let little spurts of bubble escape from her mouth until the feeling in her lungs was comfortable.

According to his wife, Peter Benchley, who died in 2006, considered The Girl of the Sea of Cortez his best novel. He was born to a literary family on May 8, 1940. His father, Nathaniel, was also a writer, and his grandfather, Robert, was a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table. That might not mean anything to you, but we literary types hold a romantic idea about the Algonquin Round Table. After a series of odd jobs—if you consider speechwriter for President Johnson an odd job—he entered the fiction writer with a splash by publishing Jaws in 1974. 

I don’t know if anything compares to the success of Jaws. He ended life with a series of nonfiction books about sharks, to clear up misunderstandings that the novel caused. He worked on environmental issues and has a shark species, Etmoperus benchleyi, named for him. 

It wasn’t The Deep but The Girl of the Sea of Cortez is probably the better novel. At least, it is the novel I found and read, and that makes it the better novel. According to Wikipedia, it has a cult following, but the footnote says a citation is needed, so take it with a grain of salt. Cult following or not, it’s a good novel, and I recommend it. 

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