Thursday, January 5, 2012

Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton, The Squatter and the Don (1885)

An extended discussion of this novel can be found in How the West Was Written, Vol. 1. (Click here)

This historical romance, set mostly in southern California, has a bundle of different aspirations. It’s a nostalgic recollection of life on the Spanish land grant haciendas and a bitter account of its swift demise when Alta California became part of the United States. The book is also a family saga, incorporating several love stories. And it’s a shrill screed attacking the greed and political corruption of the railroad monopolies.

Ruiz de Burton (1832-1895) was born of an aristocratic family in Baja California in the years before the Mexican-American War. After becoming the wife of an American military officer, she traveled widely among the Eastern states as her husband saw active duty with the Union Army during the Civil War.

After her husband’s death in 1869, she returned west to property near San Diego that had been granted to her husband by the government. There, she was engaged for the rest of her life in lawsuits, as Anglo squatters contested ownership of her land. She also began writing fiction and became the first Mexican-American to publish novels in English.
Long-Waterman House, San Diego, 1889
Plot. Much of her own story finds its way into The Squatter and the Don, which is set in the 1870s. The Don of the title is the patriarch of the Alamar family near San Diego and a warmly dignified gentleman. Operating a 47,000-acre cattle ranch that was originally a Spanish land grant, he’s being invaded by squatters.

The squatter of the title is Darrell, who agrees to pay the Don for the land he’s homesteading, but only after suits and countersuits over legal ownership of the rancho have been resolved. His son, Clarence, is a young man already wealthy from lucrative investments.

A natural gentleman in his own right, Clarence also has set his eye on the Don’s youngest daughter, Mercedes. She resists the advances of the handsome American but falls hard for him anyway. The Don encourages the courtship and eventually his wife comes around to the prospect of the young couple’s marriage.

An ugly dispute between Darrell and the Don puts the wedding on hold, and Clarence leaves San Diego while Mercedes is left stricken with anguish. Believing his father has ruined his chances for marriage to Mercedes, he travels to Arizona to visit his gold and silver mines, which are making him a multi-millionaire.

Returning to California after three years, he is happily reunited with Mercedes. With his extensive wealth, he is able buy the now-deceased Don’s rancho and relocate the entire extended family to his home in San Francisco.

Collis Potter Huntington, 1872
More. This synopsis covers about one-fifth of this 400-plus-page novel. There are multiple subplots and a Dickensian cast of characters. Nearly everyone’s fortunes begin well and then gradually deteriorate due to illness, poverty, suicide, disabilities, accident, shootings, bad investments, malice, and bad luck.

A major cause of misfortune is the robber barons Leland Stanford and Collis Potter Huntington. They are two of the Big Bad Four who comprised the Railroad Monopoly in California. Owners of the Central Pacific Railroad, they’re able to prevent the building of a competing railroad that would serve San Diego, thus crushing any promise of economic growth there.

The novel returns again and again to a recital of grievances against Huntington, who actively bribes members of Congress to favor the monopoly. Adding insult to injury, the monopolists also decline to repay Congress for its initial loans, and they refuse to pay federal or state taxes.

The Octopus of the Railroad Monopoly
Villainy. There are small time villains in the novel, the most unsympathetic of them being the squatters who despise the Don as a “greaser” and as a second-class citizen. These squatters are crude men, cowardly, and at least one of them a hopeless alcoholic. One, a virulent democrat, argues that the Don deserves no more than the 160 acres coming to anyone wanting a homestead.

The most despicable villains, however, are Huntington and Stanford. Ruiz de Burton includes pages of documents leveling charges against Huntington for blatant bribery of public officials, influencing legislation, and buying key committee seats. The novel closes with excerpts of correspondence in which he openly discusses his chicanery.

Leland Stanford we get to meet in person, as a delegation comes from San Diego to win his support for their railroad. He scoffs at their philanthropic expectation of fair play. Business is business, he tells them. If it wasn’t me screwing you, he says, it would be somebody else. So don’t ask me to do anything that’s not in my financial best interest.
Mussel Slough Five, defendants in dispute with railroad, 1880

Character. Like many western novels that would follow, Ruiz de Burton makes a strong case for qualities of character that she admires in a man. The Don is clearly the living example of them. He is a natural aristocrat, generous and even-tempered. Though the squatters could easily provoke him to anger, he remains civil and even makes reasonable offers to negotiate with them.

Honest to a fault, he refuses to take payment for a herd of his cattle that is lost in a snowstorm on the way to being delivered to Clarence. It does not matter that Clarence has already bought them and considers himself the owner. As much as the Don needs the money, to take it would be dishonorable, and a man’s honor is worth more than gold.

He loves his wife and, at the age of 50, continues to have a romantic streak in him. When he realizes how much Clarence loves his daughter, he encourages him to court her. “Faint heart never won fair lady,” he says to the young man.

 Leland Stanford, 1881
Wrapping up. The problem with this book for modern readers is that it is far too long and repetitive. The diatribes against the squatters and the railroad are rehearsed so often they become tiresome. The many sequences of high melodrama are also heavy going. There are histrionics, sobbing, and all manner of emotional distress for both genders.

It’s a world where a highly distraught young woman is likely to fall unconscious and succumb to a fever that lasts for months. Young men, for their part, fall hopelessly, obsessively, and painfully in love at the first sight of a pretty new girl. And there is far too much talk, talk, talk about all this.

Meanwhile, there are long accounts of the social affairs of elite folks who entertain each other with balls, receptions, musicales, yachting, nights at the opera, and parties. These are not quite digressions but simply long stretches where even the idea of plot simply disappears.

The novel offers not much in the way of good storytelling, but as a document of the times, it’s memorable for being a sad account of a disgraceful period of American history. Maybe the most compelling episode is the meeting that the small delegation from San Diego has with Leland Stanford. Captured in that scene is the altruistic and hopeful dream of democratic America being scoffed at by greed incarnate.

An extended discussion of this novel can be found in How the West Was Written, Vol. 1. (Click here)

The Squatter and the Don is currently available at google books, Internet Archive, and for kindle and the nook

Further reading:
Frank Norris, The Octopus (1901)

Image credits:
Wikimedia Commons  
The Octopus of the Railroad Monopoly, from The Wasp, August 19, 1882

Coming up: Joel McCrea, Stranger on Horseback (1955)


  1. I don't know about this one. Probably not on the top of my reading list.

  2. Like Charles, I don't think I'll be reading this... But it is interesting, especially the author!

    I don't know why I thought about this novel while reading your review, but have you read Oscar Lewis' "I Remember Christine"?

  3. Actually, this is the third week I'm hosting FFB, though Patti will be hosting again next week.

  4. Charles, I read some of these so you don't have to.

    Sage, I read an Oscar Lewis book back in college, but nothing since then. Glad to know people still think of him.

    Todd, you are a champion. Thanks for the heads up.