To the Discussion Leader
Noted author Sherry Garland sets her new Dear America novel in the Sonoma Valley of California in 1846. The diary entries of María Rosalia De Milagros introduce youngsters to the californios and the struggles to keep their land. The Bear Flag Revolt, Captain John Frémont, General Mariona Vallejo, and a host of interconnected historical figures and events come to life in Valley of the Moon.
Like most good writers of historical fiction, Sherry Garland allows the 1840's history to be the backdrop in front of which young María Rosalia plays out her life. As a "half-Indian orphan" and servant in the home of the wealthy Medina family, María Rosalia finds her respite from daily chores in her diary and in her dreams of discovering the identity of her parents. On creating María Rosalia, Sherry Garland says, "To me, the Mexican culture is one of contrast and compromise, one of both love and hatred for the Spanish conquerors and missionaries. When writing Valley of the Moon, I wanted to create a girl who reflected these contrasts, who represented both sides of the Mexican culture."
When María Rosalia discovers her true heritage, her life is altered significantly. And just as dramatically, her beloved California changes when Mexico sells the land to the United States and the Gold Rush begins.
"My island in a sea of work" is how thirteen-year-old María Rosalia, a half-Indian orphan who was taught by a mission priest how to read and write, describes her diary. In it she records her thoughts, feelings, and dreams. It is 1846 in Alta California, Mexico's most remote northern province. María Rosalia and her younger brother Domingo live at the rancho of the wealthy Medina family. There are three Medina daughters, and the eldest, Miguela, is being courted by a wealthy American, Henry Johnston. Although the Indian cook Lupita and her husband Gregorio treat her as their own child, and the Medinas are kind to her, María Rosalia longs for a real family and to learn the identity of her father. She says, "Sometimes I do not feel I belong to the Indian world. Nor to the world of the Medinas either. Where do I belong? Until I find out who my parents were, I know I shall never rest." A servant's days are long and full of work, so when she is asked to accompany Señor Johnston to Sutter's Fort to pick up his young niece and nephew who have just lost all of their family in a wagon train accident, María Rosalia goes willingly. She and Nelly Johnston soon become best friends, and it is painful for each of them when Nelly must go on to her uncle's home in Yerba Buena.
Preparations begin for Miguela and Señor Johnston's wedding, but must be postponed when Miguela's younger sister Rafaela becomes gravely ill. As Rafaela hovers near death, María Rosalia and Lupita travel to Lupita's remote Indian village to consult a shaman who gives them an herbal medicine. Rafaela makes a remarkable recovery, and finally after much preparation and celebration, Miguela and Señor Johnston are married. Months later, Miguela is "with child" and feeling poorly, so she returns home to be cared for by her mother. It turns out Miguela is ill with cholera, and her baby is born dead. María Rosalia learns that her dear friend Nelly has also had cholera and, sadly, has died. Señor Johnston gives María Rosalia Nelly's locket and María Rosalia writes, "I am looking at the locket now as I write. Tears are blurring the words. Nelly was such a dear, sweet girl. I know she is in Heaven with her family."
María Rosalia is more determined than ever to find out about her own family. She tries to contact Father Ygnacio, the mission priest who found María Rosalia and her brother after their mother died. Though the priest is now old and dying, he writes a letter that explains who her parents were and what happened to them, and with that important information María Rosalia's life suddenly changes. She is no longer a servant girl. At last, she and Domingo have a real family.
Thinking About the Book
- How did María Rosalia De Milagros get her name? Is she named after anything or anyone?
- Why do you think the author of María Rosalia's diary gave the book the title Valley of the Moon?
- What happens on El Día de los Muertos — the Day of the Dead?
- Who is your least favorite character in Valley of the Moon? Explain your reasons for this choice.
- Nelly and María Rosalia become best friends. How are they alike? How are they different? Think about your best friend. How are you alike? Different?
- Why is it that María Rosalia and her brother Domingo did not die in the smallpox plague that killed their mother?
- How does María Rosalia discover who her father really was?
- What is the historical event know as the "Bear Flag Revolt?"
- Several important festivals are mentioned in Valley of the Moon:
Feast of Christ the King (Nov. 23)
Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe (Dec. 12)
La Posada (Dec. 15)
Nochebuena (Dec. 24)
Feast of the Three Kings (Jan. 6)
La Candelaria (Feb. 2)
Research one of these festivals and tell your group what you found out about this special day and how it is celebrated.
- Identify the following historical figures mentioned in Valley of the Moon.
Captain John Frémont
General Zachary Taylor
General Santa Anna
- In your discussion group, talk about the reasons María Rosalia decides to leave the Medina family and her brother Domingo to work as a servant for Miguela and the rest of the Johnston family. Discuss with your group whether or not you would have made the same choice.
- Plan a fiesta with your friends. Make cascarónes. Wear sarapes and rebozos. Serve pan dulce) and Pastelitos de Boda (recipe on p. 213). Learn the melody to "Cielto Lindo," (words on p. 214). Dance the fandango. Hang a piñata. Celebrate someone's birthday or a special holiday.
- The Osos painted their own flag during the "Bear Flag Rebellion." Look up the flag design. Now look at the modern state of California flag. How are these two designs alike? How are they different? Design your own bear flag.
Discussion Guide written by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston and Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D., Clinical Assistant Professor, University of Houston, Department of Curriculum and Instruction. Houston, Texas.