Who Would Have Thought It? by Maria Ruiz de Burton, 1872
This book is notable for being
- the first book written in English by a Mexican in the United States
- about the Civil War. Have you noticed that no book I have reviewed on this blog is about the Civil War? No one wrote about it. The Red Badge of Courage and Cold Mountain are the only canonical books on the topic of the American Civil War. Neither author lived during the war. Ruiz de Burton did.
- lost and rediscovered by the Recovering the United States Hispanic Literary Heritage Project in the 1990s.
Before you get giddy at the thought of the first novel by a Latinx woman on this blog, let me tell you what this novel is not. It is not as woke as you want it to be. Ruiz de Burton wrote in the 1870s. Nothing is woke enough for us. Our wokest politicians aren’t nearly woke enough. Our wokest friend’s wokest Facebook posts often piss us off. If you choose to read Who Would Have Thought It? and I think you should, you will be offended by Ruiz de Burton’s attitude toward Native Americans, African Americans and dark-skinned Latinx. You should be offended by this, but I still think you should read the book.
The book will not represent the experience of the average Mexican living in the U.S. in the 19th century. The author was born into a powerful family in Baja California. Her father was governor and helped lead Mexican resistance in Baja. Maria married Henry Stanton Burton, a captain in the invading U.S. Army. This is not the typical experience for Mexicans in the land that would be incorporated into the United States. Who Would Have Thought It? has one Mexican character. She is as weak, docile and boring as any other such heroine from Victorian or even Gothic literature.
Taking those failings into account, this is still a special book. Ruiz de Burton describes New England society during the Civil War from the perspective of an outsider and she skewers the hypocrisy she encountered without mercy. My jaw dropped repeatedly at her audacious satire. So much of Victorian fiction reinforces social norms. (Not Thomas Hardy, though. That’s why I love him.) Ruiz de Burton gives unearned respect to absolutely no one, from preachers to Abraham Lincoln himself. No one is safe. Hide your wives; hide your clergy. Ruiz de Burton is coming for them.
We begin with the Norval’s, an upright New England family in need of capital to provide their surfeit of daughters each with “a position.” Mr. Norval suddenly returns from a research expedition to the West with a swarthy young lass and many large boxes of “specimens” in tow. The girl, Lola, is not well received by the family, in great part due to her dark skin. When pious Mrs. Norval discovers that the specimen boxes are filled with gold and gems left to Lola by her deceased mother, she reveals her… shall we say, desire for worldly goods.
Mrs. Norval’s character arc is the highlight of the novel. She begins as a judgmental matron, too good to acknowledge her neighbors. Ruiz de Burton shows that her mantle of respectability is a thin skin covering a greedy and selfish character. Mrs. Norval seems devout, but she’s really in love with her minister. She seems frugal, but she’d do any immoral thing to acquire more wealth for her own worldly needs and to present a fashionable face to society. de Burton puts white New England women on blast and she sure blasts them. For example, when Mrs. Norval hears that her husband wants Lola to be treated with the same respect as his own, fair-skinned daughters, she objects “In that case your daughters and myself will have to wait upon your adopted child; for I am sure we will not find in all New England a white girl willing to do it.” Her husband responds “And that, of course, speaks very highly for New England,–abolitionist New England mind you. But I’ll warrant, madam, that you shall have plenty of servants.” Damn! Gotcha. Ruiz de Burton shooting straight for the heart of hypocritical New England that prided itself on abolition, but still treated black people as lesser and exploited Irish immigrants as underpaid and mistreated servants.
This review is already getting so long and I could say much more about the satirical brilliance of Who Would Have Thought It? Ugh. I have to tell you about the Cackles. They were the poor next-door neighbors that the young Misses Norval were too good to associate with. They go off to fight for the Union. One Cackle falls off his horse in his urgency to flee from the Rebels. When he manages to reseat himself, he encounters a wounded senator who “came to see the battle from a distance” thinking “it would be such a splendid sight.” Cackle responds, “I hope you are satisfied, you and your friends, with the d—d fun you politicians have made for us all.” But he saves the senator, who repays him by advancing this first man to retreat to a high position in the Union Army. His brother becomes quite famous for losing control of his horse during another retreat. The confused beast runs back onto the field of battle. His fellow soldiers are inspired by his supposed bravery, retake their artillery and win the day. Not even war heroes are safe from Ruiz de Burton. She has no respect for the hierarchy of the Union Army. Cowardly clods are promoted, while honorable soldiers are left to rot in Confederate prison camps with no hope of being traded, because a powerful person has a personal grudge against them.
I can’t share every bit of biting satire or brilliant wisdom from this book with you. Suffice it to say that Ruiz de Burton weaves brutal satirical jabs into every moment of her narrative. Young ladies going abroad? “It was the anniversary of some great day in New England when the Misses Norval were to make their farewell appearance in church before leaving for Europe,–some great day in which the Pilgrim fathers had done some one of their wonderful deeds. They had either embarked, or landed, or burnt a witch, or whipped a woman at the pillory, on just such a day.” Damn.
Returning to Lola, whose role is rather minor. It turns out that she is not in fact “negro” as everyone assumed at first, but that her mother dyed her skin black with…I don’t know, walnut juice or something, to…I guess protect her somehow while they were held captive by a Native American tribe. The characters and the narrator betray a heartbreaking prejudice against Native Americans and anyone with dark skin. This is such a let down and an aspect of the novel and culture in general that cannot be ignored. Lola is considered “pure” and worthy only because she turns out to be of European descent. The presence of this attitude in this novel is plenty good reason to skip it. But I still think there is something unique about Who Would Have Thought It? I’m not suggesting that you tolerate or ignore this prejudice. I’m asking that you criticize it thoroughly while also acknowledging the moments of brilliance in this novel. There is no other novel like this. None.