I apologize in advance for this review. The book was not what I expected, and if I had read the summary a little more closely, I would not have picked it up at this point in time. Simplistically put, I thought Ramona was going to be Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but with Native Americans instead of slaves. It was that, although one can question how successful Helen Hunt Jackson was with her story. Uncle Tom’s Cabin whipped up abolitionism in the country, whereas the overall treatment of Native Americans in the 19th century hardly improved after publication of this book. Be that as it may, it is clear as day that Jackson wanted readers to sympathize with Native Americans in southern California, and so above all else, this is a love story, and I was not in the mood for a 100+-year-old romance meant to manipulate its readers.
Jackson’s story is that of Ramona and Alessandro; she half Native American and half Scottish, raised by a strict Mexican señora, and he a devout and heroic Mission Indian. The two fall in love when Alessandro is helping out on the señora‘s ranch, and while Felipe, the son, supports a marriage between the two, his mother is firmly against it. So Ramona and Alessandro run away to live among the Native Americans, and all could have been well, if not for the white settlers who murder and steal without any regard for anything. It does not bode well for the two lovers.
I suppose this works as a 19th-century protest novel. It was hugely successful in its day, and on an objective level, I can see why it worked and why it’s an important book. But subjectively, I just couldn’t get over the saccharine romance. I am normally very good at reading books in their context and seeing their merit, but boy, there was SO MUCH SUGAR in this one. Sugar on top of every stereotype possible. My teeth hurt while reading! Ramona is the most beautiful girl ever, with the most pleasant disposition possible. Alessandro is the bravest and most devout Native American, with the best knowledge of all the hidden trails in the country. Of course these two deserve all the happiness in the world, but I’m sure you can figure out what happens to their homestead, their baby, and their great love. I’m sure many a reader wailed about why people couldn’t simply let this humble couple be.
I wanted to get so much more out of this book, but it was impossible for me to ignore how Jackson played with her readers’ emotions. I would have DNF’d this, if not for the narrator of the audiobook I listen to. She made it entertaining, with just the right amount of emphasis on all the anguished pleas Ramona utters throughout the book, so maybe you want to check out the Blackstone Audio edition. As for me, I will skip Jackson’s poetry and instead seek out her A Century of Dishonor, which chronicles the maltreatment of Native Americans as far back as the American Revolution. I’m sure it will be just as bleak as Ramona and Alessandro’s future, but with far less sweetener added.