Friday, May 22, 2009


Ramona by Helen Hunt Jackson was mentioned as an important novel of old California in the historic documentation at San Diego Old Town. I had heard of the book but never read it -- and I had no idea of what a sensational best-seller it was when first published in around 1884. Since then, the popularity continues: there have been something like 300 editions and several movies (the photo is from the 1910 silent film with Mary Pickford as Ramona). The town of Ramona, California, was originally called Nuevo, but was renamed in order to profit by association with the famous book (see the town website).

Ramona was a perfect selection in my current project of reading books with a strong California theme. I would have loved it when I was around 14, and I still enjoyed it (read the Project Gutenberg version.) The author's 19th century sense of passion and purity are in a way irresistible.

Jackson intended the book as a means to raise awareness of the horrendous injustices that were being done to the Indians of Southern California. Her work still succeeds in creating such awareness. She had a vivid style, with every character and every locale described emotionally and effectively. Ramona is a good, passionate orphan girl, disliked by her foster mother, adored by everyone else, including her foster brother and a handsome, intelligent, educated Indian from Temecula. Driven away by the proud, vengeful foster mother, Ramona marries her Indian lover, and suffers from a series of expulsions from every home he makes for her and numerous personal tragedies. (The films must have really been tear-jerkers.)

The early part of the book offers detailed descriptions of the landscapes between Santa Barbara, where the aging Father Salvierderra lives at the Mission, and the mountain-area estate where Ramona's foster family raises sheep and horses. The family belongs to a Spanish upper-class that -- along with the Indians -- are being displaced and dispossessed of their earlier heritage by the Americans from the east. The relations between the Catholic monks and priests, the Mexican families, the Indians, and the Americans are a key theme of the novel.

Here is a passage about the landscape right near where I am at this moment:
"The shore of the Pacific Ocean for many miles north of San Diego is a succession of rounding promontories, walling the mouths of canyons, down many of which small streams make to the sea. These canyons are green and rich at bottom, and filled with trees, chiefly oak. Beginning as little more than rifts in the ground, they deepen and widen, till at their mouths they have a beautiful crescent of shining beach from an eighth to a quarter of a mile long, The one which Alessandro hoped to reach before morning was not a dozen miles from the old town of San Diego, and commanded a fine view of the outer harbor. When he was last in it, he had found it a nearly impenetrable thicket of young oak-trees."(Chapter XVII -- no page nos. in Gutenberg)
I'm afraid that housing developments, shopping centers, and freeways have replaced much of the landscape, and 90 per cent of the wetlands at the openings of those canyons are destroyed. One open area still lies between Los Angeles and Ventura that may still be close to what the Father saw. We've taken rides in the hills around here that also still could be significantly similar. The connection of past and present makes the reading all the more enjoyable.

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