There were two old school romances I adored as a teen. One, reread not too long ago, was Lorna Doone. And the other was, spoiler, Ramona. As a SoCal girl, how could I not? I was very familiar with the locations and history. As a matter of fact, one of my sons got married at the Rancho Camulos, where the story begins. It’s a historical site, but since it was owned by the same family until the mid-20th century, it’s a perfect hodge-podge of various eras. But it sits, still, in the midst of acres of orange groves and is peak California Rancho days.
Ramona is one of those novels, much like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Huckleberry Finn, which are important to read in the context of their time to realize how revolutionary they were. It’s set in the early days of California statehood, when the wealth was all in the northern part of the state, and the southern portion of the state was considered unprofitable waste land, due to its erratic rainfall. Cattle and sheep grazing were the predominant activities, and the only crop that could reliably be grown was grapes (citrus came later, with the Owens River water). Most of the land had been owned via Spanish land grants and cities were of negligible size. The population was predominantly Mexican and indigenous, with a scattering of whites (Asian and black Californians lived by and large in northern California at this time.) But white settlers were moving into southern California, using the American legal system to take over both Californio and indigenous properties (property boundaries were vague under the rancho system, which ended up disqualifying most of their grants).
Helen Hunt Jackson was very much a crusader for the rights of the indigenous Californians, and she based the plot of Ramona on the land grabs of both indigenous and Californio property, and racial identity. Not everyone was who others believed them to be, and Ramona, unbeknownst to her at the beginning of the novel, is one of these characters. And let us not forget the plot, which is sweepingly romantic. There’s a good reason the town of Hemet (AKA Temecula in the book) has staged an outdoor performance of the book, done by a cast of several hundred townspeople, for over 100 years. It’s some good stuff.