This is part of Diane’s American Literature Course Series
The first time I read Ramona by Helen Hunt Jackson (not Beverly Cleary), was with my beloved book group in Colorado Springs. The person who chose the book for group perusal chose it partly because of Jackson’s Colorado Springs ties. As I’ve read more about her, I realize those ties are rather tenuous. Her second husband was a Colorado Springs founder, but the couple seem to have spent more time apart pursuing their own projects than living together in his mansion.
By the time Jackson was 35, she had endured the deaths of her husband and two sons. She was 45 when she married for the second time. Comments from people who knew her as a child indicate that she was born with an independent spirit. In 1879, she heard a lecture on the U.S. government’s treatment of an Indian tribe in Nebraska, which awakened an activist spirit in her as well. Not long after this, she wrote to a friend, “I have become what I have said a thousand times was the most odious thing in life, ‘a woman with a hobby.’ But I cannot help it.’” Jackson plunged into a period of meticulous research into the Government’s record in Indian relations. In 1881 she published A Century of Dishonor, a chronicle of the federal and states’ treaty violations and Indian Agency corruption.
While in California for the sake of her health, she began to study the history of the Spanish missions and the Mission Indians. Outraged by what she learned, she began writing Ramona, stating her goal in a letter: “If I could write a story that would do for the Indian one-hundredth part what Uncle Tom’s Cabin did for the Negro, I would be thankful the rest of my life.” Knowing that people are more inclined to read a novel than an exposé, she wrote a story of forbidden love and the resulting tragedy.
Fortunately for Jackson, her romance was a best-seller. Unfortunately for her, though her book generated some interest in the Indian plight, it did not have the impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It did, however, spark a tourist industry. To this day, you may visit Ramona, California, take the “Ramona” tour, and see the Ramona Pageant. The story was the subject of a silent movie in 1910, and has been adapted for the screen several times since.
My girls and I discussed possible reasons for the failure of Jackson’s intent, which they explain in their essays.