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Paradise Lost

Helen Hunt Jackson Thought Southern California Could Have It All--Natural Beauty, Cultural Harmony, Human Triumph. In 'Ramona,' She Prophesied the Failure of That Dream.

April 05, 1998|KATE PHILLIPS | Kate Phillips is the author of "White Rabbit" (Houghton Mifflin/HarperCollins), a novel set in Laguna Beach, and is completing a book about Helen Hunt Jackson, to be published by the University of California Press

Raquel Welch in 1959. Anne Archer in 1969. Who knows when another rising star might shine in the title role of the Ramona Pageant? This month, the pageant opens in Hemet for its 75th year, once again presenting an elaborate outdoor theatrical adaptation of Helen Hunt Jackson's 1884 novel. A handful of former leading ladies have promised to return for special anniversary celebrations. Chances are these actresses will be recognized only by seasoned members of the pageant's large supporting cast, made up annually from the local community. But I hope the former Ramonas will show some chutzpah in Hemet, jockeying for position in their commemorative photo shoot, flashing extravagant smiles, oozing glamour like Raquel Welch.

On a spring afternoon eight years ago, I went to the pageant with my grandmother. She was 87 then, approaching the end of her life. She was small and frail. The day was very hot, even by Hemet standards, and the open-air amphitheater fried in the sun. My grandmother struggled to maintain her cool with giant therapeutic sunglasses, an old white tennis visor and frequent trips to the shaded restroom area. She had read and reread Jackson's novel over the years and had long dreamed of seeing it enacted. It was a modest dream, one that should not have tempted fate; so it was with growing anger at life's petty injustices that I watched her grow faint and bewildered in the heat.

After about an hour, we abandoned the show and walked slowly out to the parking lot. My grandmother moved in a daze, looking straight ahead, refusing eye contact. She didn't say anything, but I sensed the disappointment she was doing her best to hide. Today, the fact that we managed to make it through even half the performance seems to me amazing--a testament to my grandmother's strong will, and to her love for the story of "Ramona."

She adored everything about it. She admired the beautiful orphan Ramona, Jackson's half-Indian, half-Scottish heroine, who patiently endures an unhappy youth on the Southern California ranch of her austere Spanish guardian, Senora Moreno. She thrilled in Ramona's love affair with Alessandro, a dashing Luiseno Indian from Temecula. She pitied the young couple as they struggled to set up home in one Indian village after another, only to be driven away by greedy, unscrupulous U.S. settlers. She was saddened by Alessandro's death at the hands of a white settler and relieved when Senora Moreno's son, Felipe, rescued Ramona from misery.

In a way, the enthusiasm my grandmother felt for the novel was a sign of her age: In the 50 years following "Ramona's" publication, people around the country felt a similar passion for the book. My grandmother had an aunt in St. Paul, Minn., who was named after Jackson's heroine. In Colorado, at the remote spot high on Cheyenne Mountain where Jackson was buried in 1885, countless pilgrims paid tribute to the beloved author, piling up stones on top of her grave until they eventually created such a clutter Jackson's body had to be moved to a private cemetery. In Southern California, Jackson's novel was transformed into local legend. Restaurants, streets and whole towns were given the name Ramona, and a vast tourism industry developed around the story, generating tens of millions of dollars in revenue.

What is the appeal of "Ramona"?

For my grandmother, a native Southern Californian who despised the bland sprawl of concrete that had spread over her once majestic homeland, and whose heart was unwilling to accept the local culture's relentless focus on what is new, or at least renewed, "Ramona" offered the solace of a colorful, pastoral past. Set in the 1870s, it depicts a time when native Californians--Indian, Spanish and Mexican--struggled to maintain their hold on an agrarian land against the encroaching order of U.S. industrialism.

Jackson depicted early U.S. settlers in Southern California as grasping and immoral, hoping that her novel would awaken Americans to the injustices they were perpetrating against California's Indians. My grandmother understood Jackson's message, and for as long as I can remember she tried to respond, each year donating a portion of her Social Security check to Indian foundations. At the same time, however, perhaps inappropriately, she felt a personal identification with Ramona and the other dispossessed characters of Jackson's story, seeing them as victims of the same relentless drive for development in Southern California that had continued long past the 19th century, destroying much of the beautiful countryside she had cherished in her youth.

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