1st Thursday [8]: Helen Hunt Jackson’s “Ramona”

Ramona

The back cover of my mother’s copy of Ramona touts this as “The Great American Love Story!” But the reality is that this book demonizes America’s early government and the settlers of the American West. Overall, however it is a love story, and more so it is an inspiring tale of a woman prevailing in the face of increasingly daunting adversities.

Love stories are not really my genre in books, but I decided to read this as a preview to revisiting Helen Hunt Falls in Colorado Springs, something I hope to do soon after having been there once before, in my childhood. One really has no more than a name in common with the other, but I felt I should at least take the time to familiarize myself with the woman behind that name. It took me months (again) to read this one, in part because the book’s fine print, yellowed pages, and at times bleeding print were rather hard on my eyeballs. I considered downloading the e-version, but my distinct aversion to the Library Electronica meant I forged on with what I had. It also was not helpful that much of the last third of the book was written in thick Tennessee-drawl, when a plain English translation would have sufficed. Even the main characters spoke primarily Spanish and a Native American language, and those were presented in clean English.

Ramona begins with a mixed-race girl living in the home of a Spanish woman who is the sister of the girl’s adopting mother. Little is known of Ramona’s birth mother, and her second mother, before she died, gave her to the Señora Moreno to raise as her own child. But the Señora never loved Ramona, making her very much a displaced person from page one.

That’s not to say that Ramon was unloved. The Señora’s son, Felipe loved her, as did others around the ranch.

[T]he shepherds, the herdsmen, the maids, the babies, the dogs, the poultry, all loved the sight of Ramona; all loved her, except the Señora.

From the start, we learn that Señora Moreno is a headstrong woman, with “passionate nature, brimful of storm…” and that she is a masterful manipulator of others:

To attain one’s ends in this way is the consummate triumph of art. Never to appear as a factor in the situation; to be able to wield other men, as instruments, with the same direct and implicit response to will that one gets from a hand or a foot…

Even at the urging of a trusted priest, she refuses to grasp the necessity of a love for Ramona as a daughter, while her love for Felipe is of the strongest kind. “One cannot love by act of will.”

It was no use. As well say to the mountain, “Be cast into the sea,” as try to turn the Señora’s heart in any direction whither it did not itself tend.

Of Felipe, we learn that he is the head of the household, the decision-maker, but only by the strings pulled by his mother. He has an unyielding love for both Ramona and the Señora. They are his family.

Sheep-shearing season at the ranch brings about a group of Indians from Temecula to help with the work. One, Alessandro, emerges as a strong and noble man, who stays on at the ranch when Felipe becomes terribly ill. With Alessandro’s help–and perhaps merely his presence–Felipe recovers. During the long extended stay, however, Ramona and Alessandro develop an unexpected love, forbidden by the Señora because of her opinions of Indians aside from their invaluable work at the ranch.

The Señora’s condemnation of their love leads Ramona to stand up to her for the fist time in her life, and soon she makes her escape with Alessandro. Even Felipe questions his mother’s determination, after Ramona becomes sick during confinement just before her departure. In one exchange, the Señora insists and her son sarcastically replies:

 “She may be ill; but people do not die of love like hers for Alessandro.” “Of what kind do they die, mother?”

Ramona and Alessandro slowly make their way to places of isolation, with few belongings other than two horses and a dog in tow. They find a priest who marries them, and soon have a child, all while fleeing the constant encroachment of the American settlers of the western continent. Alessandro witnesses the aftermath of the takeover of his own community.

The Temecula Indians had disappeared, that was all there was of it,–disappeared, like any wild creatures, foxes or coyotes; hunted down, driven out; the valley was rid of them.

At another stop along their journey, a similar story:

They had scattered “like a flock of ducks,” one Indian said,–“like a flock of ducks after they are fired into.”

A seemingly inevitable personal tragedy in the face of such persistent injustice finds Ramona on her own once more, “as helpless in her freedom… as if she had been chained hand and foot. ”  But after his mother quickly deteriorated and died, Felipe took up pursuit of the lovers, and eventually he finds Ramona.

He invites her to join him in a new life, among the American settlers he has never understood.

[Their] passion for money and reckless spending of it, the great fortunes made in one hour, thrown away in another, savored to Felipe’s mind more of brigandage and gambling than of the occupations of gentlemen.

But Ramona follows Felipe, and she herself quickly becomes the new, indomitable, Señora Moreno. She is blessed with more children, but it is one named for its mother that is her favorite, and the final words of the book hint at the beginning of a new story, revealing perhaps the real subject of the title: “Ramona, daughter of Alessandro the Indian.”

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