Valley of the Moon

I had about zero memory of this book. I know I must have read all the Dear America books at some point in my misspent (not) youth, but upon rereading this book I realized I didn’t remember a damn thing about it. Who knew? And it was quite good!

Valley of the Moon: The Diary of Maria Rosalia de Milagros, Sonoma Valley, Alta California, 1846, Sherry Garland, 2001.

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I’m also embarrassed to say just how far I got into this book before realizing this takes place around San Francisco, since apparently the Sonoma Valley is in the Bay Area. (I grew up in the Midwest and never set foot in California until earlier this year, so my California geography is limited to “LA is in the south and San Francisco is in the northern part???” without too much other nuance. To say the least.) And I’m confident that if I knew even a tiny bit about California history besides the obvious, I would have figured out right from the cover that this is a book about John Fremont and the Bear Flag Republic. Who knew? Not me!

But it doesn’t matter anyway, because the book is great and well worth reading even if you’re like me and completely ignorant about Californian history. Although weirdly, my used copy was clearly well-loved and filled with some stranger’s cookie crumbs, which at least gave me the nostalgic feel of getting a stack of library books only to discover at least one was full of some other kid’s dirty thumbprints and peanut butter smudges. Rosalia here is an orphan and servant in the home of the Medina family, a wealthy ranching family in the Sonoma Valley. She’s half Indian and half Spanish, as is her younger brother Domingo, and they’ve been with the family for almost ten years, staying with Lupita the cook and Gregorio, who oversees the men who tend the ranch.

There are three Medina daughters—Miguela, the eldest, who is headstrong and sharp and very beautiful; Rafaela, the middle daughter, who is “gentle and sweet but very sickly” [incoming trope alert!]; and Gabriela, the youngest at eleven. Miguela has a number of would-be suitors, but one in particular, Senor Johnston, has been to visit the family often and is awaiting the rest of his family to come from Missouri. He befriends Maria, hoping she will befriend his own niece, Nelly, who is about Rosalia’s age. But before they arrive, they get word that there was a horrible accident in the Sierras, and Johnston’s family was killed—all but Nelly and her brother. Johnston borrows Rosalia to go and greet them, thinking a girl her own age will be a comfort, and off they go to Sutter’s Fort. When they come back, Nelly is uncomfortable—she’s a Missouri farm girl, and the Medina women are wealthy landowners who never touch a lick of work.

Eventually Nelly goes to the Johnston home in Yerba Buena (did you know that’s San Francisco? I do now! I didn’t figure it out despite the line “The view of the bay is breathtaking, especially when a gentle fog hovers over the water. I can clearly see the strait leading into the mouth of the bay. It reminds me of a golden gate when the setting sun hits it.” What the hell is wrong with me?) to stay for a bit, then home to the rancho. By the beginning of December, Miguela finally agrees to marry Johnston and move to Yerba Buena, which fills Rosalia with joy—not because of the wedding, but because Miguela is awful to live with. So while the house is in a turmoil getting ready for both Christmas and the January wedding, they overhear Johnston and Senor Medina talking about one John Fremont and his men, who claim they’re there just to survey the land, but no one believes that.

But in the middle of January, Rafaela becomes very ill and the wedding must be postponed. She is so sick they think she may die, and is only saved by Lupita’s knowledge of root medicine. While she is recovering, Senor Medina notices a scar on Rosalia’s arm that looks like a vaccination scar—meaning someone in Rosalia’s past cared about her very much, and was knowledgeable enough to vaccinate her against smallpox. This does nothing but create more questions in her mind.

Meanwhile in the United States, Texas has been annexed—which means that Mexico may wage war against them, which would create havoc in California. Medina is of the opinion that the Mexican government won’t stand up for California, and others are ready to declare independence entirely.

The wedding finally takes place after much to-do in February, and afterwards Rafaela requests that Rosalia become her personal servant after nursing her back to health. So instead of helping with the cooking and cleaning, she’ll help Rafaela dress and take her walking and riding to build her strength. After Lent, Rosalia’s brother Domingo goes missing—only to be found by Senor Medina, who treats him like a son and doesn’t punish him at all. Instead, he promises to take him to a cockfight, which puts Rosalia’s nose out of joint a bit.

When Miguela and her new husband return for a visit, she’s very changed—much more relaxed and less mean than before. She brings Nelly and Nelly’s brother Walter, whom Rosa is quite taken with, and Miguela announces at dinner that she’s pregnant. There’s a fiesta while they visit, and Rosalia is allowed to dance with a boy for the first time—Walter, of course. There are horseraces and bullfighting and general festivities, and Rafaela confesses that Walter is “interested” in her—which is painful for poor Rosalia, who doesn’t seem to catch any breaks in life.

A month or two later, in June, Miguela is feeling ill and wants to visit her parents, but before she arrives more tension rises between the Californians and the Americans, and other families are preparing to flee in the event of war. Miguela arrives anyway, much sicker than she said—and just afterwards a band of American bandits attack, which everyone thinks is Fremont’s plan. Miguela is sick with cholera and eventually miscarries her baby, which lays the family flat, but they refuse to flee the valley.

General Vallejo is taken prisoner in a coup, and some Americans hoist a new flag declaring it the Republic of California. No one knows exactly what is going on, and the Americans are controlling who can leave and enter the town. Johnston and Senor Medina, who left, haven’t been allowed to return, and the girls aren’t allowed to leave the house without chaperons. And when Johnston finally does come back, he brings the news that Nelly caught the same disease Miguela had, and died.

They finally hear that Senor Medina is fine, except for a broken leg—and then suddenly the Republic of California is no more. The United States claims it officially, and the Bear Flag is taken down. Rosalia and the rest wonder what will become of them—since they will no longer be Spanish or Mexican or anything but American.

After things die down, Rosalia begins wondering again about what Senor Medina said to her, and wants to know as much as she can about her past. She asks the Senora for permission to seek out the old priest who rescued her and Domingo, but is denied—but she finagles her way on a trip to Yerba Buena with Gregorio anyway. They stay with Miguela, who works Rosalia to the bone, and she learns that the priest is long gone from Yerba Buena anyway. When she returns to the ranch, Miguela asks that Rosalia be sent to her permanently, and Rafaela says she doesn’t mind—but Domingo will stay back at the rancho, where Gregorio and Senor Medina adore him. Although it hurts her, she agrees to go to Yerba Buena permanently—where Walter is, who has been looking for the priest for Rosalia.

He gives Rosalia a letter—he found the priest and he wrote Rosalia a letter, although he is very elderly and in ill health. He writes that he was so happy to hear that she and Domingo are doing well, and that their mother was a member of a tribe from the south who were forced to relocate. Rosalia’s father, descended from Spanish ranchers, was wealthy and important, and married Rosalia’s mother only in a native ceremony instead of a Catholic one. He was away when the smallpox epidemic broke out, and Rosalia’s mother sacrificed herself to save her children—and when her father returned he was told his family had died in the epidemic, so he left for Monterey and died shortly afterwards.

When the priest found Rosalia’s mother, she was dying, and whispered the word “padre” while pointing to her gold signet ring. The priest took it and wore it, grew fond of it, and never gave it back. And then, when Rosalia was about six, he wrote a letter to Senor Medina, but it was intercepted by a local muckety-muck, saying the ring had belonged to Antonio Medina, Senor’s younger brother!!! [OMG.] But he was going to tell the bishop that the priest was too liberal and have him excommunicated if he said anything, because he didn’t want it publicized that wealthy families were intermarrying with the local Indian tribes. So he promised that Rosalia and her brother would be taken care of, and the priest just….gave in.

So he asks Rosalia to give the letter to Senor Medina—which she does—and the Senor begins weeping. “’I didn’t know,’ he whispered again and again. ‘My own flesh and blood and I didn’t know. Forgive me, my brother. And forgive me, children.’” The family is thrilled and happy, and file papers so they will become Medinas legally, and the sisters are excited to have Rosa as a cousin instead of a servant.

In the epilogue, Rosa stays with Miguela for two years, and they become close friends instead of servant and mistress. Though Senor Medina eventually loses his land and his fortune after California enters the Union and begin claiming lands owned by Mexican-Spanish families, his daughters do well for themselves. Rosa marries Walter, find gold on their property, and begin a winery; and Domingo raises cattle and horses. Rosa is killed in the earthquake in 1906 after a long and mostly-happy life.

Rating: A. I have to say, I don’t even quite know why I enjoyed this book so much! It’s wonderfully written, and the characters are all vibrant and alive instead of being flat caricatures. They all have faults and good points, and they grow as characters and change—not just Rosalia. And I loved the twist ending! I hate twist endings, and I hate sudden reveals, and I hate wish fulfillment stories—but for some reason, everything about this clicked and fit and it was a wonderful ending. And I actually learned about California! I have nothing bad to say about this book. Why wasn’t it more popular???


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