The Squatter and the Don (1885) by Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton
In the whole of my professional life so far, I have taught only one lecture course: a survey of American lit. Now I could go on and on about the problems with this kind of teaching/learning structure, but that's for another time and another rant. For now, I want to introduce you (if you've never heard of her before, and many haven't) to Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton.
I included this novel in my syllabus because it's unique in many ways and gives us a new and fascinating perspective on American culture, economics, and race in the mid-19th century. The Mexican-American War (1846-48) sharply divided the nation, with some arguing for the expansion of the U. S. and others denouncing the war's imperialist aims and the potential expansion of slavery to the western regions.
The Squatter and the Don is the first novel written in English that describes the outcome in the West of the Mexican-American War from the perspective of the conquered Mexican population. A "historical romance," it tells a story of land-grabbing and greed by focusing on two families: one white, the other Mexican (Californio). Ruiz de Burton invokes Romeo and Juliet when she writes of a Mexican girl and white man who fall in love, while their families are locked in a bitter struggle over land rights. That she was herself a Mexican woman married to a white man and keenly aware of these issues gives the novel the added dimension of passionate denunciation.
At times, Ruiz de Burton abandons the plot to lecture the reader about the injustices and illegalities that she portrays in the story, as if she wants to make sure that her arguments are crystal clear. But even without these interludes, the story of Clarence and Mercedes and their families, the western railroad monopolies, and the U. S. government's dismissal of legitimate land claims would stir our own indignation.
The Squatter and the Don may not be well-known, but it should be. The issues it raises are numerous and still relevant today.