Ramona is unquestionably the first ‘great California novel’, and its influence on the southern part of the state has been profound: for example, the original name of the 10 Freeway between Los Angeles and Pomona was originally called the Ramona Boulevard Highway. There is a city in San Diego County named Ramona; there is also a subset of the Cahuilla Native American Tribe called the Ramona band, after a woman named Ramona Lubo who claimed to be the inspiration for the novel. For the California trivia enthusiast, these are reasons to read the novel. For the historian and the tourist, however, there are other reasons to enjoy Helen Hunt Jackson’s epic; the novel is a terrific way to experience a period of California history in addition to being a fun, if sad, love story.
The setting is Southern California right after the state became part of the USA and the mission system was secularized. A widowed Mexican woman, the descendent of the original settlers in the state, owns a hacienda close to the San Buenaventura Mission, where she lives with her son Felipe and Ramona, the adopted daughter of the Senora’s deceased sister. Although Senora Moreno has vowed to raise Ramona, she has never loved her. Ramona is half Anglo and half Native American, the two races that the Senora despises; the Americans has stolen large parts of the Moreno family’s original land grant, and the Indian tribes have long been regarded as slaves to the California missions. When Ramona falls in love with Alessandro, one of the itinerant workers who comes to work at the annual sheep shearing, the Senora is outraged. Ramona elopes with Alessandro and spends two years wandering through Southern California with him, bearing children, watching one die, experiencing racism, humiliation, and the mental illness of her tormented husband. When Alessandro is shot by an American who desires his horse, Ramona would be completely helpless if not for the love of Felipe, who has traversed the area to find her and bring her back to his rancho.
Jackson originally wrote the novel to showcase the mistreatment of Native Americans in California and the clash between the original inhabitants, the Spanish/Mexican elite class, and the interloping Americans who fatally change the balance of power. The novel was first published in 1884, right when the railroads were built. A huge success in the United States, the book enticed many people to make the train trip out to see the various locations featured in the novel. Circulated as it was after the Gold Rush and before the rise of motion pictures, the story was one of the reasons that the California myth endured and the state was populated.
In Hemet, California, an annual “Ramona” pageant has existed since 1923, where the story is re-enacted every year. The novel can now be obtained for free from Project Gutenberg and read on a computer or an e-reader.