Books about the Baja California peninsula (and ones that utilize it as a setting) have been appearing regularly for hundreds of years, from landmarks like Francisco Clavijero’s Historia de la Antigua o Baja California to 20th century standards such as The Pearl and Sea of Cortez.
Literary offerings from Steinbeck and others of similar prestige have always been easy to find, but for too long acquiring the important regional works of lesser known authors was a daunting task, requiring wit, wisdom and the patience to scan the shelves of innumerable bookstores.
Luckily, the internet shopping age has brought many of the classics of Baja California literature back to light, and made them readily accessible to a new generation of readers. Here are five favorites – some famous, some relatively obscure – all available through Amazon and other online booksellers.
Historia de Baja California by Pablo L. Martinez
“The origin of the word California, or rather when and how it was applied as a name to the peninsula, appears to be obscure, speaking from a purely historical point of view. It is not known, of course, whether Fortún Jiménez, the discoverer, or some other person among those who went with him, gave it a name. On the other hand, we have seen that when Cortez went there he called it Santa Cruz and nothing else.”
There is a reason Pablo L. Martinez is honored at the Jardín de los Cabeños Ilustres in San José del Cabo (he was born in nearby Santa Anita), and at the Rotonda de los Sudcalifornianos Ilustres in La Paz. His Historia de Baja California is the most complete and exhaustively researched book every written about “old Baja,” from the language and customs of indigenous tribes to the building of Spanish missions and the political movements of the first half of the 20th century. First published in 1956 (the English edition followed in 1960), this is an essential resource for anyone interested in the history and development of the Baja California peninsula. Unlike other Baja histories, which often rely on legends and lore, Martinez’s magnum opus is based on archival records, first-person accounts, and the documented finds of other noted historians. His companion volume, Guía Familiar de Baja California, 1700 – 1900, is the bible of Baja genealogists, tracing as it does the histories of the peninsula’s pioneer families.
The Journey of the Flame by Antonio de Fierro Blanco
“‘Shut up, Bonehead!’ whispered his mate. ‘They’ll think you locoed by the sun, and souse a bucket of water over your thick skull. It’s Don Juan Obrigon – Juan Colorado. Or perhaps you’ve heard him called Red John.’
“‘Or The Flame,’ suggested an aged Indian politely. ‘When I handled a bowstring, he once destroyed the warriors of a wild tribe by fire, which sprang from the earth at his command. They perished in flame while he rode on, not even looking back to see whether any survived to chase him.’”
Looking for “The Great Baja Novel?” Written under the rather florid pen name Antonio de Fierro Blanco, this picaresque tale is actually the work of wealthy American businessman Walter Nordhoff, who fell in love with Baja California while managing an enormous ranch his father owned on the peninsula. Although he is perhaps best known as a father himself – of Charles Nordhoff, who co-authored The Bounty Trilogy (including Mutiny on the Bounty) with James Norman Hall – Walter was a brilliant writer in his own right, as evidenced by The Journey of the Flame. The hero of the novel is an extraordinarily vital red-headed centenarian named Don Juan Obrigon, who recounts an adventure from his boyhood, when he accompanied the Spanish viceroy to California on an epic journey by burro from San José del Cabo to San Francisco. This incredible journey, which takes place in the year 1810, includes stops at many of the peninsula’s most notable towns, with each layover an occasion for Nordhoff to showcase his vast knowledge of the language and local customs of 19th century Baja Califonia residents. First published in 1933, this book is justly considered a masterpiece of California literature, and it has inspired generations of readers to set off on their own Baja adventures.
Explorations in Lower California by J. Ross Browne and Spencer Murray
“At Cape St. Lucas we were told that San Jose was the great place for mules; at San Jose, it was Triunfo that offered the peculiar advantages; at Triunfo, La Paz was the chief market; at La Paz we were recommended to defer our purchases till our arrival at Todos Santos; and here we found but few mules, and none in good condition.”
Ross Browne’s peripatetic career included a stint as a confidential agent (read: spy) for the U.S. Treasury Department, and it has been speculated that the purpose of his 1866 trip to Baja California wasn’t merely to evaluate an option on a land grant for the Lower California Company of New York, but to evaluate the suitability of the peninsula for annexation by the United States. México would have had something to say about that, of course, but considering that the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo – in which the U.S. was ceded all or parts of present day California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado for cash considerations – was signed only 18 years earlier, it wasn’t exactly a far-fetched idea. Browne’s account of his travels in Lower California includes occasionally poetic, and often dryly humorous descriptions of life and the political climate in places like Cabo San Lucas, San José del Cabo, Todos Santos and La Paz. But his blunt opinions make it clear what he really thinks of the region’s long-term outlook. The best edition of this historical account includes commentary from Spencer Murray a century later, in 1966. Murray was an early promoter of Baja California, and his books Cruising the Sea of Cortez and Power-Boating the West Coast of Mexico helped popularize the peninsula as a tourist destination.
Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research by John Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts
“The real picture of how it had been there and how we had been there was in our minds, bright with sun and wet with sea water and blue or burned, and the whole crusted over with exploring thought. Here was no service to science, no naming of animals, but rather – we simply liked it. We liked it very much. The brown Indians and the gardens of the sea, and the beer and the work, they were all one thing and we were that one thing too.”
The Log from the Sea of Cortez is probably the best known book ever written about Baja California, although it actually only an abridged version of an earlier work – Sea of Cortez. The Log keeps Steinbeck’s narrative observations, but jettisons most of the notes on specimen collecting and marine biology that were the prime motivators of the six-week expedition undertaken by Steinbeck and his friend Ed Ricketts – the inspiration for the character Doc in Cannery Row – aboard the Western Flyer in 1940. Literature lovers will want to read the original, while casual readers can content themselves with Steinbeck’s musings on boats, beer and Baja as it was just before the U.S. and Mexican entry into World War II. Equal parts travelogue, scientific journal and philosophical treatise, Sea of Cortez offers keen insights into the sea itself – “ferocious with life” in Steinbeck’s memorable phrase – as well as light-hearted ruminations on such things as the faithlessness of the Hansen Sea-Cow outboard motor, the beauty and maddening elusiveness of Sally Lightfoot crabs, and the sad state of Cabo San Lucas following a devastating storm (the latter sure to evoke a sense of retroactive déjà vu in those who experienced the wrath of Hurricane Odile in 2014).
The Unforgettable Sea of Cortez: Baja California’s Golden Age 1947 – 1977, The Life and Writings of Ray Cannon by Gene S. Kira
“Many of the early entrepreneurs of the modern age were airplane pilots of the World War II era who established fly-in fishing resorts on the shores of the Sea of Cortez. The very first pioneers of this group included Abelardo L. ‘Rod’ Rodriguez of Rancho Las Cruces, Ed Tabor of the Flying Sportsmen Lodge, Herb Tansey of Rancho Buena Vista, and Luis Cóppola Bonillas of the Hotel Los Arcos in La Paz. Whether by coincidence or by historical imperative, all four of these former pilots opened their businesses within a few months of each other between 1950 and 1952.”
Despite its surfeit of subtitles – the book might more concisely be called A Celebration of Ray Cannon – this lovingly crafted biography will have special appeal for those who traveled to Baja before the days of paved roads and luxury resorts. Few did more to promote and popularize Baja California in the 1950s and 60s than Cannon, a former Hollywood actor and director whose second act as a columnist for the Western Outdoor News and best-selling author of The Sea of Cortez helped usher in the peninsula’s golden age of tourism. Cannon was a lifelong fisherman – his other notable book was How to Fish the Pacific Coast – and his tales of extraordinary catches south of the border were hugely influential in the success of some of the early fly-in fishing resorts. Kira, himself an accomplished writer on Baja subjects, stitches together a colorful narrative, interspersed with passages from some of Cannon’s old columns, and accompanied by a treasure trove of old photographs that were donated by Cannon’s wife Carla Laemmle. Although Cannon’s own The Sea of Cortez is more properly considered a classic Baja California book, Kira’s historical perspective on Cannon and the peninsula’s development as a whole make this volume a better introduction to one of the region’s most fascinating eras.
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