In the more than 140 years since the end of the American Civil War, most Americans have growncomfortable with a conventional narrative of that conflict. For the most part, we regard Abraham Lincoln as a decisive, clear–sighted leader; we deplore the slaveholding policies of the Old South; and we hail as righteous the efforts of the Northern armies to preserve the Union and abolish slavery. For these reasons and others, modern readers are likely to find in the pages of Who Would Have Thought It?—the 1872 debut novel of Mexican American novelist María Amparo Ruiz de Burton—a host of surprises. If for no other reason than that it is the first English–language novel ever written by a Mexican American, Who Would Have Thought It?would be worthy of attention. But Ruiz de Burton’s novel matters as much for its perspective as for the identity of the woman who wrote it. With relentless satire, Ruiz de Burton takes fierce exception to the supposed righteousness of antislavery New England, a place that the author regarded as rife with materialistic vanity, overt racism, and religious hypocrisy. A precursor to the era of muckrakers that included Upton Sinclair with The Jungle and Frank Norris with The Octopus and taking the art of social criticism to within a hair’s breadth of social blasphemy, Who Would Have Thought It? may be one of the angriest novels you will ever read—and one of the most thought–provoking.
Ruiz de Burton’s story opens as the kindly Dr. Norval returns to his home in New England from along sojourn in the American West, bringing with him a dark, quiet girl named Lola Medina, a former captive of Mexican Indians. Entrusted by Lola’s dying mother with the obligation of caring for her, Norval intends to treat the girl as a member of his family. However, put off by her unusually dark complexion (Lola’s skin has been dyed black by her erstwhile captors), the people of Norval’s town, led by his own virulently racist wife, greet Lola with hostility—until they discover that she possesses a fortune in gold and precious gems. After speaking sympathetically on behalf of the Southern states that will soon secede from the Union, Norval is abruptly driven to flee the country. Word soon comes of his supposed death, and Lola is suddenly all but defenseless against the greed, hatred, and rapacity of Mrs. Norval. With the help of her venal and satanic minister, Reverend Hackwell, whose private lust for the young girl is equaled only by his desire to seize her fortune, Mrs. Norval plots to defraud Lola of her birthright. Only the Norvals’ earnest, handsome son Julian, who loves and hopes to marry Lola, stands between his mother and the achievement of her wicked desires. As war rages and avarice ascends, virtue and hope are imperiled, and both the future of Lola and the social and political ideals of the American republic hang in the balance. Savagely humorous, blackly pessimistic, Who Would Have Thought It? calls into question everything you thought you knew about Civil War America. With its ridicule of military heroism, its scornful depiction of the Lincoln administration, and its denunciations of the moral hollowness of northeastern life, Ruiz de Burton’s novel leaves few icons unshattered. And it leaves few readers unmoved.
ABOUT MARÍA AMPARO RUIZ
María Amparo Ruiz was born in either Loreto or La Paz in the Mexican state of Baja California Sur. Her maternal grandfather was a military commander who also served as governor of his state. At the age of fifteen, near the close of the Mexican–American War, she met her future husband, a United States Army captain named Henry S. Burton, who took part in the capture of her hometown of La Paz. Soon after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo brought an end to the war, Ruiz and her mother moved north to Monterey, where they became American citizens. Overcoming both religious and political obstacles, she and Captain Burton were married in July 1849, less than a week after she turned seventeen. The couple moved to San Diego in 1852 and soon purchased a ranch, where they raised their two children until shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War. As that conflict loomed, the family moved to the East. Eventually promoted to brigadier general, Burton served honorably in the Union’s Army of the Potomac before being debilitated by malaria. He died of complications from the disease in 1869. Widowed at thirty–seven, Ruiz de Burton turned to writing as did many American women of her class (Harriet Beecher Stowe, Rebecca Harding Davis, Frances E. W. Harper, etc.) during the mid– to late nineteenth century. Her first novel, Who Would Have Thought It?, was published anonymously in 1872 and was the first novel in English by a Mexican living in the United States. It was followed in 1885 by a second novel, The Squatter and the Don, a bitter indictment of monopolistic capitalism. Ruiz de Burton also wrote a play based on the adventures of Don Quixote. She spent much of her later life fighting a legal battle over the property rights to her late husband’s ranch and managing a variety of business concerns, encompassing construction, agriculture, and cement manufacturing. Ruiz de Burton died in Chicago in 1895.
- Some readers might argue that, thanks to its unusual perspective on Civil War-era America, Who Would Have Thought It? is of more value as a document of social history than as a literary work of art. Do you feel that social significance is an adequate criterion for identifying a book as a “classic”? Why or why not?
- Throughout much of Who Would Have Thought It? Lola Medina remains a largely undeveloped character, acting principally as a foil for Dr. Norval’s charity and for the greed and hypocrisy of the other characters. Do you agree with Ruiz de Burton’s decision to make Lola so passive? Does she miss an opportunity to capture the sympathies of the reader? What does Ruiz de Burton’s treatment of Lola accomplish, and what does it fail to accomplish?
- Who Would Have Thought It? is harshly critical of Anglo–American mores and of governmental corruption. Are you persuaded by its critiques? Why or why not?
- How successful is Ruiz de Burton in creating complex, well–developed characters? How does her skill in characterization influence the overall effectiveness of the novel?
- Ruiz de Burton came to the eastern United States as a cultural outsider. How do you think the critical distance afforded by her outsider status increased or diminished her ability to satirize New England society?
- What is your opinion of Ruiz de Burton’s use of contrived surnames to reflect the nature of various characters (e.g., Mrs. Cackle, Reverend Hammerhard, and Mr. Skroo)? Do these labels tend to sharpen her satire or deprive it of subtlety?
- Mrs. Norval and several other characters in Who Would Have Thought It? evince a seemingly strange paradox in that they are simultaneously hostile to slavery and deeply bigoted against people of color. Is it possible to explain this contradiction?
- As a teenager, Ruiz de Burton looked on as the United States Army conquered her hometown. After the Civil War, Ruiz de Burton became friends with Varina Davis, the wife of the former president of the Confederate States of America. When together, the two women would anecdotally “drink tea and talk badly about the Yankees.” How do these experiences help to explain or complicate Ruiz’s political positions in the novel?
- Ruiz de Burton initially published Who Would Have Thought It? anonymously. What motives might have caused her to do so, and do you agree with her decision?
- Americans often expect immigrants to subscribe to a narrative of gratitude and reverence for the values and opportunities that their new country affords them. What do you think of Ruiz de Burton’s pointed refusal to participate in this kind of narrative?
- Jean–Paul Sartre argued that a novel inspired by religious or ethnic prejudice could never be a great novel. Does this observation have application to Who Would Have Thought It?—a novel that condemns prejudice against Latinos and Latinas but also aggregates African Americans under the label of “Sambo” and presents savage stereotypes of white New England Protestants? Is the net effect of this novel to weaken prejudices or to complicate what it means to be prejudiced?
- When we first see Lola as a young girl, her skin has been dyed black. The longer she resides in New England, the physically whiter she becomes. Why do you think Ruiz de Burton used this rather odd plot device, and what ironic or symbolic value does it contribute to the novel?
- Dr. Norval is driven from America to Africa for having expressed some sympathy for the Southern states. What contradictions does Ruiz de Burton imply regarding a society that, while fighting a war for freedom, indirectly punishes the free speech of its citizens?
- Ruiz de Burton’s depictions of life in Confederate military prisons are especially moving. Surprisingly, however, she uses these scenes to critique Northern policies regarding prisoner exchanges. How successful is she in turning the blame for the war and its atrocities upon the Union government?
- An especially surprising feature of Who Would Have Thought It? is Ruiz de Burton’s depiction of President Lincoln, whom she represents as a dilatory, hapless bumpkin. How do you respond to Ruiz de Burton’s evident disregard for one of the most respected of American icons?
- In what ways can Who Would Have Thought It? be read as a critique of colonialism?
- The heroic Julian Norval refers to the stripes on his Union army uniform as “the mark of slavery” and announces that he “did not bargain to surrender my freedom to give it to Sambo” (p. 243). Is Ruiz de Burton arguing that preserving the South’s enslavement of millions of black Americans would have been preferable to fighting the war that freed them? Where is the moral center of her novel’s argument? Does she take her critique of the war too far?