When journalist Helen Hunt Jackson (1830-1885) wrote the novel Ramona at the end of her life, she hoped that it would inspire the American government to improve living conditions for the Indians of California who were being forced from their lands.
Jackson's role model was Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose Uncle Tom's Cabin inspired abolitionists of slavery.
But Jackson became a victim of her own vivid imagination--producing a romantic bestseller that did more for the emerging tourist industry in Southern California than it ever did for the Native Americans.
First off, there was the tale of forbidden love as Ramona, a beautiful, pious and loving orphan of Scottish and Native American descent falls in love with the full blooded Indian Alessandro from the Pablo Assis tribe centered in Temecula. Why this Native American man has an Italian name, is just one of the liberties the author takes with historical accuracy--but it does help to make these two star crossed lovers resemble Romeo and Juliet.
Here is Alessando yearning for his love--who he at first believes to be Mexican aristocracy (Chapter Five):
If Ramona had been a maiden of his own people or race, he would have drawn near to her as quickly as iron to the magnet. But...she was as far removed from him as was the morning star beneath whose radiance he had that morning watched, hoping for sight of her at her window."
Second, there were the idyllic descriptions of Mexican ranch life in Santa Barbara, San Diego and Ventura County--complete with orchards, vineyards, grazing land, mission bells and chapels--where each morning (at least in the book) all arise and greet the dawn by joining one by one in a round of sacred hymns.
Here is the view from the south veranda of the matriarch, Senora Gonzaga Moraga:
Between the veranda and the river meadows, out on which it looked, all was garden, orange grove, and almond orchard, the orange grove always green, never without snowy bloom or golden fruit; the garden never without flowers, summer or winter; and the almond orchard, in early spring, a fluttering canopy of pink and white petals, which seen from the hills on the opposite side of the river looked as if rosy sunrise clouds had fallen, and become tangled in the tree-tops.
Third, there is a sort of happy ending--for while there is great suffering as Ramona runs off with Alessandro and is successively chased off each homestead they settle in--she ends up safe and sound in the end.
These days, many of us have never heard of the novel--but it was a bestseller for almost sixty years and found its way onto reading lists in the California public schools up until World War II.
You can read more about its impact here in a summary prepared by the California Missions Resource Center:
I recently led a discussion of the book for a women's club in San Francisco--where some of the women remembered reading the book in younger days and others remembered Ramona tourist attractions and festivals. One woman had even visited Helen Hunt Jackson's grave in Colorado Springs.
Others told us that we could still attend an annual Ramona festival and reinactment of the story in Hemet, California:
I chose this book for book discussion for several reasons.
First, and always foremost, although it was written over a century ago, it is a great story packed with romance and adventure.
The lovers are constantly pursued by disapproving relatives , Indian Affairs officers, and outlaws.
All the while, they are surrounded by magnificent scenery.
There is a racist and evil foster mother who says:
"If the child were pure Indian, I would like it better. I like not these crosses. It is the worst and not the best of each, that remains.
Yes, the drama is over the top, as mission bells ring and gunshots ring out.
Meanwhile, on the ground, even the poultry adore Ramona.
Consider this straight out of Disney scene, (Snow White--anyone?) presented years before Disney was born:
The shepherds, the herdsman, the maids, the babies, the dogs, the poultry and all loved the site of Ramona, all loved her except the Senora.
But we do read on to see what happens next.
And in the 21st century there is the opportunity to read this in context--identifying the stereotypes, and considering why it captured the attention of the late 19th and early 20th century American reading public the way that, say, Eric Segal's Love Story did in the 1970s and Robert James Waller's The Bridges of Madison County attracted us in the 1990s.
Also this is a chance to separate the myth from the reality in California history as the state changed from Spanish to Mexican to American control--although with all the intermarriage it's hard to divide California's founding fathers and mothers into completely separate groups.
And it is a chance to review California history--a real boon to those, like me, who did not grow up here, and thus did not have to work on "mission projects" in the fourth grade.
Quick--when did California become a state?
How long did Mexico control the territory after winning independence from Spain?
We googled a lot during the discussion to check dates and places.
Then there's the impact on popular culture.
Ramona inspired three major films, an opera, and a hit song in 1928--the first written specifically for a movie soundtrack.
You can hear it here:
And as I mentioned before, there's still a festival still held yearly in Hemet, California.
Mary Pickford, America's sweetheart, donned black braids to portray Ramona in a Cecil B. DeMille silent film in 1910.
(See the resource list at the end of this post and you can find out how to view this film.)
Delores del Rio played her in 1928
And Loretta Young played her in 1936
In each of these films, as in the book, the white settlers are portrayed as the villains, grabbing the land and possessions of the peaceful Indians...an unusual point of view in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Think of all the "cowboy and Indian movies" you watched when you were young.
There's a wealth of Ramona material available for book groups--especially book groups in California.
I found a lot of Ramoniana in the Mechanics Institute Library on Post Street in San Francisco
And I bet you could find lots at The Bancroft Library in Berkeley.
Here are some of the books and films that I used:
1)Helen Hunt Jackson: A Literary Life by Kate Philips University of California Press (2003)
Here is part of the blurb from University of California Press:
Discussing much new material, Kate Phillips makes extensive use of Jackson's unpublished private correspondence. She takes us from Jackson's early years in rural New England to her later pioneer days in Colorado and to her adventerous travels in Europe and Southern California. The book also gives the first in-depth discussions of Jackson's writing in every genre, her beliefs about race and religion, and the significance of her chronic illnesses. Phillips also discusses Jackson's intimate relationships—with her two husbands, her mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the famed actress Charlotte Cushman, and the poet Emily Dickinson. Phillips concludes with a re-evaluation of Ramona, discussing the novel as the earliest example of the California dystopian tradition in its portrayal of a state on the road to self-destruction, a tradition carried further by writers like Nathanael West and Joan Didion.
In this gripping biography, Phillips offers fascinating glimpses of how social context both shaped and inspired Jackson's thinking, highlighting the inextricable presence of gender, race, and class in American literary history and culture and opening a new window onto the nineteenth century.
2) Ramona Memories: Tourism and the Shaping of Southern California by Dydia DeLyser,
Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press, c2005
The author, a professor of geography, describes how Ramona launched a wave of tourists into the area. There are many pictures of places where the story is believed to have been set. Read this and you will find it hard to believe that Ramona was a fictional character.
The True Story of Ramona: It's facts and fictions, inspiration and purpose, by William A. Alderson and Carlyle Channing Davis, Dodge Publishing Company, New York 1914
You can read the full text (without photos) here:
But if you want the photos, try to get a copy of the book. There is one available at the Mechanics Institute Library in San Francisco (www. milibrary.org) and Burlingame Public Library has copies, too.
Ramona: a story of the white man's injustice to the Indian / director, D.W. Griffith ; photographer, G. W. Bitzer ; adapted from the novel by Helen Hunt Jackson ; cast, Mary Pickford, Henry B. Walthall (1910, 16 min.)
This silent film is one of several that are availble on the DVD called:
Treasures III Videorecording: Social Issues in American Film 1900-1934
Americans in the Making produced by the National Film Preservation Foundation, curator Scott Simmon, music curator Martin Marks. Image Entertainment distributor 2007
Thanks to Nick Szegda of Menlo Park Public Library for helping me to get this copy--which you, too, can get at Menlo Park Library.
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