Every century or so, a story will emerge that carries so much social and emotional importance it becomes first a classic, and then… iconic. The tragic tale of Ramona and her lover Alessandro is just such a story. Like Romeo and Juliet, Wuthering Heights, and even a more modern fable like The Great Gatsby, “Ramona” has planted itself in our cultural consciousness in a very unique way. When Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel “Ramona” was first published in 1884, it was hurled against the public mindset like an ocean wave against a row boat. The sheer gravity of its message could not be ignored. It became an instant best seller, and, as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” had a generation earlier, not only changed the way people looked at the world outside their own comfort zone, it gave the average citizen a look into a culture they had previously only heard rumor of. Woven into the romance of “Ramona” is a glimpse of the tragic history of Southern California’s native peoples. More than just a love story, it is a tale who’s message is as important today as it was when the novel first hit the public stage.
Helen Hunt Jackson was one of the most popular women writers of her day. Though for most of her life she had shied away from the weighty political and social issues of the late ninetieth century, in 1879 Jackson suddenly emerged, in what seemed a flash of civil consciousness, as one of America’s leading advocates of Indian rights. She called for changes in the government’s Indian policies, and documented its overt actions in an 1881 book entitled “A Century of Dishonor”. Jackson described in vivid detail the broken treaties, brutal murders, and deceptive government policies that had become the norm for the Native American people. Forced onto reservations, disease and death soon took their toll. American Indians were heading towards extinction. The United Nations would today have no problem calling these institutional practices “Genocidal”. Miss Jackson wrote of her own deep sympathy for the native people: “I sometimes wonder that the Lord does not rain fire and brimstone on this land, to punish us for cruelty to these unfortunate Indians.”
Unfortunately, though her nonfiction work may have had the weight of her passion behind it, it was not a great literary success, and did little to change the stereotypical view of Indians and their way of life in the minds of the American public. She needed a fresher approach. She decided it was not enough to merely inform, she had to entertain. And so, the story of “Ramona” was born. And the idea that more hearts can be won with pure emotion than with detailed information proved correct. And the novel’s success not only transformed the way people viewed the issue of Indian rights in America, it created a romantic vision of California that still lives on today. The book has never been out of print. And many movies and television versions have been created over the years, but it’s the “Ramona” that one experiences here every spring, against the backdrop of our beautiful rolling hills and turquoise skies, that one truly feels the presence and spirit of the story. You simply have to come to the play, California’s Official Outdoor play, as it heads toward it’s 100th consecutive season, to appreciate just what a marvel “Ramona” really is, as a story, and as an iconic fixture in the history of California.