The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1991, Volume 37, Number 4
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

Helen Hunt Jackson and Her Indian Reform Legacy.
By Valerie Sherer Mathes. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990. Illustrations. Bibliography. Index. 235 pages.

Reviewed by Cynthia Sturgis, Ph.D., history teacher, the Bishop’s School, La Jolla, California.

This aptly titled manuscript demonstrates both the very best in academic writing and its most common weakness. Mathes has spent a decade researching the reform activities of the author of Ramona, and it shows; extensive bibliography, careful endnotes, and the data-saturated text itself testify to the exhaustive nature of that effort. The result is an intricately detailed narrative of Jackson’s involvement with Indians, particularly those of Southern California, and of the way in which her achievements inspired those who followed in her footsteps. For scholars familiar with questions of Indian affairs in the West or those intimately acquainted with late nineteenth century Southern California history, it is a useful and intriguing work. For the more casual reader, this slender volume may provide a rougher trip.

Mathes plays fair: this work makes no pretensions to be a full-scale biography of Helen Hunt Jackson, although the inclusion of fascinating, if infrequent snippets regarding her personal life and the author’s obvious familiarity with privileged source materials made this reader hunger for just such a volume. Instead, it grew out of Mathes’ interest in the larger Indian reform movement, and she does a fine job of placing Jackson in that context and examining her pivotal role. Indeed, as Mathes leads the reader literally up hill and down dale in pursuit of Jackson as she battles her own worsening health, contrary Indian agents, and distant government agency heads on behalf of “her” beloved Mission Indians, the determination and energy of the heroine become almost daunting. Those familiar with the modern landscape of Temecula, Warner’s Ranch, and Santa Ysabel will find these travels both familiar and yet hauntingly remote. There is a strong feeling that we are reading the original reports and actual correspondence of Jackson and the army of zealous reformers struggling to turn back the tide of white settlement which is washing away the remnants of Indian life in Southern California, trying to modernize the native inhabitants while preserving some trace of cultural dignity. The very real sense of immense effort imparted by the narrative renders the outcome all the more poignant. As Mathes reminds us, Jackson hoped that her novel Ramona would become the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the Indian Reform Movement, since her more factual, but no less impassioned, study of government policy entitled A Century of Dishonor had failed to rouse either Congress or the general public. Instead, Jackson suffered the fate of other reform novelists such as Upton Sinclair; readers were moved by the description of human suffering in her book, but viewed it as a romance rather than a call to action. And, a century later, Ramona is remembered by most, if at all, as the source for three Hollywood films and a local outdoor theater production.

But, while Mathes brackets her fact-laden description of treks across Southern California from one Indian village to the next with this larger vision of Jackson’s life and significance, a sense of tragic irony does not penetrate the density of the historical minutiae. And that’s a shame. Mathes follows the lead of many other respected and knowledgeable authors. She writes for fellow scholars; she doesn’t write for readers. This book has all the “crossover” potential in the world: a dogged, sometimes quick-tempered but passionately principled heroine with a tragic past and a long-suffering second husband, and a supporting cast of hair-splitting bureaucrats, idealistic ministers, and plucky spinsters who brave isolation and insult to help a group even more oppressed than themselves (and now we know where those pioneering female physicians worked — on Indian reservations). And all of them ready and eager to speak for themselves! Mathes has a fine ear for the pithy quotation, and when she allows her sources to address the reader directly the narrative bristles with life. Unfortunately, too often these wonderful moments are all too brief. No block quotes here — instead, they’re allowed barely a line or less, too often buried in reportorial detail which sounds like an undigested summary of the primary works. When scholars are trained to write as well as they research, when they decide to take Barbara Tuchman or Bernard DeVoto as models, books with the muscle, bone, and spirit of this one will finally find the audience they deserve. Until then, sadly, few casual readers will complete the journey.