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Reading and Discussion Questions for John Rollin Ridge (Yellow Bird)'s The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta, The Celebrated California Bandit

1. In what ways does this novel differ from novels by Hawthorne, Melville, and Henry James?

2. What starts Joaquin Murieta on his quest for revenge? What kinds of parallels might his motivation share with events in the life of John Rollin Ridge?

3. Among the characteristics of a romantic hero are the following:

In what ways can Murieta be seen as a romantic hero?

4. Is Murieta a hero or a villain? Is he a Robin Hood figure? What are the values of his world? What is his moral code? What does he prize, and what does he scorn? What is his system of honor, and what characters does he punish for breaking it?

5. What systems of law and justice are operating in this book? In what ways do the systems of law oppose justice? What is the difference between natural law and social or governmental law in this book?

6. Ridge surrounds Murieta with a number of secondary characters, including some who act as foils, like Three-Fingered Jack and Joaquin Valenzuela. Why is the presence of Three-Fingered Jack important in the book? In what ways does his presence shed light on the character of Joaquin Murieta?

7. Murieta at times seems a larger-than-life character; for example, his defiant cry of "I am Joaquin! Kill me if you can!" (87) seems like something out of a movie. How realistic is this novel? In what ways is it more of a romance?

8. What part does the landscape play in the narrative? How does the description of the land match (or contrast with) Joaquin's position at the time? His taunt at his pursuers, for example, occurs on a mountain when he is above them.

9. Why does Ridge insert the poem "Mount Shasta, Seen from a Distance" into the text? In what ways does this evoke ideas of the romantic sublime (as distinct from the picturesque and the beautiful)?

10. In what ways is the possession of land at the heart of this book literally and symbolically? What does the book say about concepts of nation, land, patria, and empire? What part might doctrines like Manifest Destiny and historical events like the Gold Rush of 1849 and the Mexican War play in the narrative?

11. Ridge includes stories of couples here and is careful to mention the men's mistresses, including Joaquin's mistress Rosita. What is the function of each of the following stories?

12. This book includes characters from a number of different tribes and countries. How are they characterized, and what function do they serve within the text? What does Joaquin Murieta's treatment of them explain about his character?

13. John Carlos Rowe has observed that "For Ridge, Joaquin's sublimity embodies the identity that U. S. culture ought to cultivate in a democratic society: self-reliance based on an ability to harness natural power and to defy social conventionality. In Ridge's portrait, Joaquin is decisively American, far more so even at his most rebellious and criminal" (117). Why does the narrator insist on the distinction between false and true "Americans"? In what way is Murieta an "American"? What does "American" mean in this book? How does this meaning resonate with other meanings of "American" at the time in which it was written?

14. How does Ridge represent the writings of others and why? (See p. 67 and following)

15. What is the position of women in this book? How are the women like or unlike other nineteenth-century heroines?

16. Joaquin claims to have a goal: to split California and drive out the Americans (75). Is this goal consistent with his actions, or is it simply an excuse?

17. In many scenes, Joaquin is initially in disguise or is passing for an ethnicity other than his own; see, for example, his impersonation of Harrington (95). In other scenes, women dress as men or characters are incognito. Why is this idea of masquerade or passing important? Why is such emphasis placed on this idea of disguised identity?

18. The book spends a great deal of time on describing Joaquin's physical person: his eyes, his flowing black hair, and so forth. Why is Joaquin's body so important to the themes of the book? What is inscribed there, symbolically speaking, that readers are supposed to recognize? What kinds of ethnicity and identity are combined in his person?

19. What kinds of literary features does this book have? Why doesn't it have chapters? How does it use humor?

20. Joaquin is pitted against a series of lawmen, among them Captain Ellas and Captain Harry Love. Why is their status important? How does he outwit or fail to outwit them? Why does the narrative seem to reflect Capt. Ellas's point of view for a while?

21. The narrative frequently mentions "Judge Lynch" and lynching (135), but other forms of retribution and violence are meted out as well. Why are some scenes of violence described at length while others are dismissed in a few sentences? What is the effect of the relentless violence?

22. Does Murieta meet his end as a hero (157)? Why is his head taken?

23. Look at the last sentence of the book. How do you read it? Is Ridge and the narrator in sympathy with Murieta? What different things could this sentence mean?

Comments to D. Campbell