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Blue Skin of the Sea    by Graham Salisbury order for
Blue Skin of the Sea
by Graham Salisbury
Order:  USA  Can
Laurel Leaf, 1994 (1992)
* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

I enjoyed House of the Red Fish, my first experience with the writings of Graham Salisbury and my enthusiasm is no less for his first novel, Blue Skin of the Sea. It chronicles events in the young life of Sonny Mendoza in eleven engrossing chapters. Since his mother's death shortly after his birth, Sonny has lived with his Aunty Pearl, Uncle Harley, and cousin Keo in the Hawaiian fishing village of Kailua-Kona. Raymond Mendoza makes peace with the loss of his wife, and takes six-year-old Sonny to live with him in a beachhouse on stilts.

Sonny has always been leery of the ocean, its depth, and the creatures within it, questioning whether he belongs in the life his family has established on the island. His father is determined that Sonny will learn to swim in the depths of the sea, taking his son out on his fishing sampan Ipo (meaning sweetheart) named after Mom. It takes great effort for Sonny to swim over and over from the sampan to the buoy in Deep Water. Throughout, he hears an inner voice and wonders where this 'dream memory ... mind shadow' comes from.

Uncle Raz bets Uncle Harvey that Aunty Pearl weighs more than Alii, his Hawaiian pig (a boar with its tusks cut off). A plan is devised to weigh Aunty without her knowledge, but Pearl is one up on them! While Keo and Sonny watch a movie camera rolling for a scene of an Old Man fighting off fake sharks, they decide to assist the actor by showing how real sharks would behave. They surmise, 'We need sharks to show the old man what a real shark looks like', seeking Uncle Raz's help on the best place to find one. Meanwhile, Uncle Raz's boat is hired out to the movie people for transport.

A new boy on the island, Jack Christensen, convinces Sonny and classmates they're headed for a bargeload of trouble when the time comes to attend the big school. Jack bases his advice on his California experiences with smokers, drinkers, fighters, and knife-carving gangs, and suggests they form their own Black Widows gang with him as leader. They get involved with Jack's stealing his stepfather's car. Sneaking out at night, headed for the dump to shoot rats, they end up with more than they bargained for.

The summer before seventh grade, Sonny works as a deckhand on Uncle Raz's forty-five foot Chris-Craft, the Optimystic. The charters hail from Bakersfield, CA - Mister Red and spouse request a large piece of black coral they can bring back to hang in their saloon. To please the folks, Raz dives deep with Sonny by his side, when they encounter a 'shimmering snakelike brown image with very sharp teeth' peeking out of a cave hole, and it's just where the coral is!

On a stay-over at Keo's while Dad and Uncle Raz drove to the other side of the island at Hilo, Sonny awakens to unusual silence. Sensing something very wrong, he notices the clock frozen at 1:55 a.m.. Aunty Pearl turns on the transistor radio to a broadcast that tidal waves (tsunamis caused from a quake in Chile) have devastated Hilo. Sonny, Keo, and Grampa Joe face hours of driving over rough terrain to find destruction, the smell of dead fish, the National Guard and security at barricades, attempting to help families locate their loved ones. When the body of a small girl is dug from the mud, Sonny asks himself 'Why?'

Sonny faces junior-high bully Rudy Batakan, who warns him: 'Lissen, sissy punk. The new haole girl - don't mess wit' her ... You mess wit' her, I mess wit' you.' But the haole girl and Sonny are mutually attracted. Sonny ponders, 'Physically, Billy Blanchet was everything I wanted to be ... Muscular, rippled stomach, arms with protruding veins'. Sonny learns a lesson about awareness of what may be happening in other people's lives.

Graham Salisbury's Blue Skin of the Sea is a true-to-life story of a boy coming of age and realizing that he is as much an islander as his family. It is difficult to resist the author's lyrical descriptions as in: 'a rich stroke of orange sky slipping down off the island' or 'The old man's hat moved along the top of the heads in a crowd, like a sand crab skirting along the beach.' Salisbury's well-scripted novels include the award-winning Lord of the Deep, Eyes of the Emperor, and Under the Blood-Red Sun. He can be appreciated by teens and adults alike as he transports readers to the Pacific islands. His closing sentence in Blue Skin of the Sea speaks volumes: 'A great peace rose from the depths.'

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