New To Temecula

Before Julie Silber told me about the sewing and quilt history retreats Leah Zieber holds each year in Southern California, I had not heard of Temecula. Google showed me that the town of almost 111,000 is east of the Pacific Ocean, kind of between Los Angeles and San Diego. Thanks to Julie, I’ll be flying to San Diego next month to hang out near Temecula with quilt history enthusiasts—including my daughter Mary Fons—and maybe finally finish that hand appliqué project I plan to take with me.

Last fall, months after I signed up for the retreat, I read an article in the New York Times that sent me to my local bookseller, Brick Road Books here in Winterset, Iowa, to order a copy of a novel called RAMONA, written by Helen Hunt Jackson, published in 1884.

The article was about an original oil painting by famed illustrator N.C. Wyeth. Purchased at a New Hampshire thrift shop for $4 in 2017, it had sold at auction for $191,000.* The artwork, which depicts what appears to be a tense conversation between two women, was an illustration for Jackson’s novel. I was intrigued enough to want to read it.

As it turns out, Temecula, and the Temecula Indians, are key elements in the story of RAMONA. Ramona is an orphan, half Scottish, half Native American, raised in the home of the wealthy and powerful Mexican landowner, Senora Morena. The Senora treats Ramona fairly, but because of her prejudice toward anyone with Indian blood, cannot love her. The Senora and Ramona are the women in Wyeth’s painting.

Jackson’s writing is highly romantic, with lots of author intrusion, a narrative style that probably would not find an agent or publisher today. Though I rolled my literary-snob eyes from time to time, I read Ramona’s saga avidly. I also dug further into Helen Hunt Jackson’s personal story.

Jackson started out as a poet, but late in life became an advocate for fair treatment of Native Americans by the U.S. Government. RAMONA dramatizes the heartbreaking story of the Temecula Indians—as well as the less-heartbreaking but still sad story of how after the Mexican-American War, the U.S. annexed the lands of wealthy Southern California Mexican ranchers and Catholic missions.

Jackson began writing RAMONA in 1883, completed the manuscript in three months, and died not long after the book was published. The novel has been reissued 300 times and has never been out of print. One reviewer wrote that UNCLE TOM’S CABIN, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, and RAMONA “are the two most ethical novels of the nineteenth century.”

About 50 pages into RAMONA, I wrote Leah Zieber an email, asking if she knew of Hunt’s novel, if people in the Temecula area are aware of the book’s history and popularity. She directed me to the website of the annual dramatization of RAMONA, an outdoor play that is in its 101st year.

*The article I linked to is the first of three in the NY Times. The bidder reneged, but a new buyer eventually emerged. Read about that here.

7 Responses

  1. Bev Sheeley
    | Reply

    Very interesting article. Mike wondered, since N.C. Wyeth was an illustrator, was this picture used for one of the the books printing or behaps a magazine article?

  2. Helen Green
    | Reply

    I read Romona as a 13 year old after seeing the movie. It hooked me forever more on reading. I read it again as an adult and outside the couple of eye rolls I was still very moved. The picture here took me right back into it. I’d never seen any illustrations. Very grateful to read this history.

    • Marianne Fons
      | Reply

      Helen, I’m so glad you enjoyed!

  3. Ellen Marx
    | Reply

    NC Wyeth homestead is just 40 or so miles from me. It is a wonderful place.

  4. Luana
    | Reply

    As a girl, I spent time with my eccentric great aunt who lived in Temecula. She and I would have tea and strawberries in the flower garden and look for fairies. She was a watercolor painter and ceramic artist, married 6 times, and had a great B&W photo portrait on the mantle of herself at twenty-something, as a vampy Twenties flapper girl. She was born in 1900. Anyway, in her elder years we would paint flowers together, and I vowed that when I grew up I would be the eccentric/fun/artsy aunt in the family too. (Her mother, my grandpa’s mother, was an early 20th century California impressionist painter.) Haven’t heard anybody mention Temecula in a long time….thanks for that memory nudge.

    • Marianne Fons
      | Reply

      Three cheers for artsy eccentricity!

  5. Audrey Simonson
    | Reply

    Hi – I, too, read RAMOMA as a 13-year-old and was entranced with the Native American cultures. Thanks for posting this.

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