I just finished reading the novel Ramona, by Helen Hunt Jackson. I hadn't heard of this novel until quite recently, when I began studying local history. The novel is set in Southern California in the mid-1800s, shortly after the Mexican-American War, and it dramatizes many of the social/political problems the region was facing at the time: forced re-location of Native Amerians, the shift in power from Mexico to the United States, the decline of the Missions, and the beginning of American settlement and development.
Ramona is a novel that reminds us of California's history. For thousands of years, it was Native American land, then Spain colonized it, then it became Mexico (after the Mexican War for Independence), then it became the United States (after the Mexican-American War).
The main protagonists of the novel are Alessandro (a Native American from Temecula) and Ramona (who is half Scottish, half Native American, but was raised by a Mexican woman). These two fall in love and must live like refugees in their own country, as American settlers and Agents force them off their land. The tender love between Alessandro and Ramona contrasts with the cruel and inhumane way in which they are repeatedly treated. Alessandro's village is taken over by white settlers who have the "law" on their side. The United States government's policies toward the Native peoples of California have, historically, been outrageously unjust.
Before writing Ramona, the author (Helen Hunt Jackson) wrote a non-fiction book called A Century of Dishonor: A Sketch of the United States Government's Dealings with Some of the Indian Tribes, which was a bitter condemnation of the greed, racism, and violence which defined Amerian Indian policy during the 19th century. Before writing Ramona, Jackson actually visited, studied, and wrote about the conditions of the Southern California Indians. On the heels of all this research and writing, she was outraged. She'd learned things that were too important not to share. Her goal with writing Ramona was very similar to Harriet Beecher Stowe's goal in writing Uncle Tom's Cabin--to help the American public understand a great injustice of their time, and maybe change things.
Ramona is a heartbreaking novel. The character Alessandro, a noble-hearted and generous young man, ends up going mad in response to all the calamities he suffers: the loss of his tribal land, the death of his father and infant daughter, the rootless and anxious life that comes from not having a home. Alessandro and Ramona wander the southern California landscape of the mid-1800s, suffering loss after bitter loss, until it is more than they can bear.
The value of a novel, as opposed to a history, is that it allows us to connect with the characters, to understand their thoughts and feel their pain and love. Ramona may be read as a dramatized argument for Indian policy reform. It takes abstract ideas and humanizes them, allows us as distant readers to enter into the suffering and despair of a people robbed of their land, homes, and even their lives.
Reading is an exercise in empathy and a reminder of things past. Reading Ramona allows us to meditate on the injustices of the past, reflect on their causes, and then transform how we think and behave in our present time. Ramona is an indichtment of greed and arrogance, and a plea for compassion, understanding, and social justice. In this way, it is a tremendously relevant and important work of literary art.