Who Would Have Thought It?

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Who Would Have Thought It? by Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton.


"Who Would Have Thought It?"

Who Would Have Thought It? (1872) was Maria Amparo de Ruiz Burton’s first novel. Fearing that as a non-native English speaker, her grammatical errors would be placed under the microscope, Burton decided to have her works published anonymously. In this sense, copies of Who Would Have Thought It? are difficult to locate.

Reflecting from her own personal experiences, Burton follows the fortunes and misfortunes of a family, the Norvals, who live in the North during the Civil War. As the story commences, Dr. Norval takes in Lola, an orphan whose mother died in Indian captivity, presumably as a fall-out of the U.S.-Mexican war.

After being gone for four years, Dr. Norval comes back home to New England with a huge surprise: a ten-year-old “nigger girl”, Lola Medina. Captured by Indians, Lola and her mother, Doña Theresa Medina, lived among them for ten years. To prevent her from escaping, Lola’s skin was stained with a black dye, which made it difficult for Dr. Norval's family to believe his adamant claims that the little girl bore no trace of negro or Indian blood running through her veins. Unconvinced that she is of pure Spanish decent, the conceited Mrs. Norval constantly looks at Lola as if she were a carrier of a deadly disease. Rather than being “rescued” from the captivity of the Indians, Mrs. Norval provided Lols Medina with a “home” that is no freer than that of a slave's. Doña Theresa Medina’s last wish as she lay on her deathbed was for Dr. Norval to aid her daughter in her escape from the Indian encampment. She asks him to bring her up as a baptized Roman Catholic and to find Lola’s father. In return, Doña Theresa Medina gave him bags containing gold nuggets, gems, and stones, which she had obtained during her stay with the Indians.

Once Dr. Norval informs his wife of Lola’s fortune, Mrs. Norval’s mind only focuses on one goal: appropriating the precious jewels and gold for her own personal use. Her accomplice was ideal, a man by the name of Mr. Hackwell who was insurmountably sneaky, untrustworthy, and conniving. When no letters were received from Dr. Norval affter his departure to Africa, he was assumed to be dead. Scheming together, Mrs. Norval and Mr. Hackwell emerged into a secretive marriage, sharing Lola’s wealth. Yet Mr. Hackwell had his own secret. He began to take notice of Lola Medina as her black, stained skin faded to white, revealing a beautiful young woman. However, he had competition: Julian Norval, Mrs. Norval’s son. Hoping to create a huge distance between Julian and Lola, Mr. Hackwell persuaded Mrs. Norval to implore her son to make the “correct” decision by marrying Hackwell's sister, Emma. Standing his ground, Julian brushed aside the absurd suggestion, and the love between him and Lola grew.

Julian, who was seriously injured in a battle, immediately returns to duty once the wounds are healed. Using this opportunity, Mr. Hackwell lures Lola into “marrying” him by tricking her into believing that the only way to acquire information about her father would be to aver that they were legally man and wife.

In the end, Lola returned to Mexico with her father and proceeds to marry Julian. Mrs. Norval was driven mad by the entire turn of events, including the news that her husband, Dr. Norval, was still alive. Her final residence is an asylum, while Mr. Hackwell is left alone after his plans to kidnap Lola backfired. Dr. Norval, who, as previously mentioned, was alive all this time, returns from his trip to the happy news that Lola has found her father. The closing of the novel reveals a surprising ending, leaving readers with the quizzical question, “Who Would Have Thought It?”


Trapped in the Fissure Between Two "Homes"

File:Borderline differences.jpg
Foreign vs. American Boundary Lines
Mexican-American Border Fence: drawing the line between two countries

Borders not only divide nations into two regions, but they can also drive a wedge between opposite matters which continue to strongly repel each other further apart. Throughout the novel, Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton formed several borderlines that created a crevice, drawing the line between “foreign” and “American”. Race has always tended to be a huge part in the division between "foreign" and "American", exemplified especially by the disgusted look on Mrs. Norval's face at the moment the red shawl revealed a "black" ten-year-old Lola Medina. The "Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Race" indicates that as the the borderline between the "foreign" vs. "American" divides two regions, race will always continue to exist in the world we live in. With the term "race", slavery lingers behind, restricting citizenship, mobility and freedom, denying individuals with different ethnic backgrounds a “home”.


1. Race is a modern idea.

2. Race has no genetic basis.

3. Human subspecies don’t exist.

4. Skin color really is only skin deep.

5. Most variation is within, not between, “races.”

6. Slavery predates race.

7. Race and freedom evolved together.

8. Race justified social inequalities as natural.

9. Race isn’t biological, but racism is still real.

10. Colorblindness will not end racism.

"History as an official, written record of the past"

Civil War Battles

Battles that raged during the civil war, such as the Corinth which was waged mostly in Mississippi from April 29-June 10, 1862, as well as the battle of Washington which occurred in North Carolina from March 30-April 20, 1863. Each of these Union victories drew a small line in a much larger picture of racism and its proponents. Every Northern vicotry made people feel closer to abolishing slavery, while for the South victory was considered a triumph over a new and dangerous force that was trying to change their routine way of life. This parallels the battles between Dr. Norval and his wife. Mrs. Norval viewed Lola as an inferior person just because she was supposedly not of "pure blood," even though she was of pure descent. Every time somebody tried to take advantage of Lola's fortune and failed it was like the South attempting a rebellion, only to be put down by the North.

Conditions of the North and South

Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton created different borders within the novel Who Would Have Thought It?. For example in this novel it was evident that women, Catholics, natives, the south, the west, democrats, the poor, the rebels, Spanish-black-mestizo, were all considered "foreign" however men, protestants, puritans, the North "yankees", the east, republicans, the rich, the patriots, the English, were all considered "American". This relates to the Border keyword by Mary Pat Brady because in this piece, Brady discusses the many different borders that are represented in the book Who Would Have Thought It? are not geopolitical borders but rather be used to located an argument by materializing or dislocating it from the actual historically specific geopolitical referents.

Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton chooses to highlight the contrast of the conditions in the South to those in the North when she describes the prisoner conditions in the South as seen through the eyes of Lavvy who interacted with a few of them in the hospital.

"You see, ma'am, we are so starved that we ain't got no more strength than so many sick kittens." And the boy laughed, amused at their weak condition, and his laugh seemed contagious, for almost all the poor sick wretches near his bed joined in it.
"But didn't the rebels give you any other kind of food at all?" again asked Mrs. Cackle.
"The truth is, ma'am, that they didn't have much to give, and nothing to spare. They complained that we were eating them up, because we helped to consume what little they had, and so we were starving them."
This picture demonstrates that both the North and South were stubborn with their opinions of slavery
The country was in tatters just like the flag in this picture
Both the North and South suffered great casualties during the war

"History as the study of the formation and growth of nations or communities"

  • In Who Would Have Thought it?, Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton parallels the inability of Mexico to control its own growth and development through the character Lola, who remains mute in all decisions which directly affect her own life. From the onset of the novel, Lola is put under the care of Dr. Norval, and eventually Mrs. Norval. Mrs. Norval's greedy rationale for allowing Lola to remain with the family is similar to the insatiable appetite of the United States in its quest for Mexico's lands. The matriarch of the household will stop at nothing to obtain Lola's wealth.
  • In Border by Mary Brady, the author borrows a quote from Gloria Anzaldua to show how borders are more than divisions between states and countries. Borders transcend geopolitical regions to create a divide “wherever two or more cultures edge each other, where people of different races occupy the same territory, where under, lower, middle and upper classes touch, where the space between two individuals shrinks with intimacy” (Brady 31).

The clash of different races is illustrated in Who Would Have Thought It? by Lola’s initial arrival at the Norval’s in Chapter II, aptly titled “The Little Black Girl.” Lola's skin is dark from the dyes of the Indian tribe, so she becomes subject to speculation, admiration, and slandering from the Norval women. Mattie picks up Lola’s hand to examine her skin tone and compliments her features, while Mrs. Norval (a self-proclaimed abolitionist) shows nothing but disdain for the grotesque appearance of a non-white child whom she suspects is riddled with diseases. No matter how much money may accompany the orphan, the doctor’s wife still considers herself to be of a better class than the "black" child she'll always envision, even as Lola's appearance transitions from dark to spotted to fair over the course of the novel. At the end of the chapter, Mrs. Norval banishes Lola out of sight to sleep with the servants. Even though the kitchen help is white, they are Irish Catholic and not Protestant like the Norvals. The opening introduction to this household serves as a demonstration of how America was divided by borders such as race and religion.

"History as a continuous, connective process"

The Effect of People's Lives on One Another as They Weave and Interweave

History is much like a tapestry, depicting the lives of people as the threads which make up the larger image, weaving and interweaving in a complex pattern of colors and textures. As we read Who Would Have Thought It? and follow Lola Medina's story, she comes in contact with the lives of many others, which all play into forming a connective and continuous history. But as much as tapestries are beautiful, they come at a price. Those with the money and influence to acquire such works of art for their homes are certainly the primary subjects. Everyone else is a mere shadow, forming the necessary contrast to glorify the subjects. Front and center, Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton embellishes the glorious family of the Cackles as leaders of the country, great lawyers and politicians. However tracing Lola's story mean the reader witnesses other poor souls upon which the Cackles stand and trample. Some, like Lavvy and Isaac, face unfairness at the hands of the Cackles. Isaac is sent off to war, and his return is prevented, while Lavvy's devotion to her country falters when she meets the Cackles in the capital who very politely send her back with empty hands.

All those vying for Lola's money seek to become part of her story as well, hoping that some of her gold will rub off on them. Lola is very much the borderline of this story. On the one hand she is of pure heritage and is wealthy and beautiful, on the other hand she is closed off, looked down upon, and regarded as second class. She interacts with characters on both sides of the border, in this way pulling their stories across the heavy dividing line as she struggles to find her place among the people of America. As she is unable to find this place, she leaves the country pulling the strings of other characters like Julian, right out of the tapestry, and connecting them to another. The story continues.

The first line reflects Lola's heritage:

"My life has been a tapestry of rich and royal hue"

The second and third passage refer to her sadness and then the meeting of Julian:

"Once amid the soft silver sadness in the sky

There came a man of fortune, a drifter passing by
He moved with some uncertainty, as if he didn't know

Just what he was there for, or where he ought to go"

The fourth passage can be read as Julian being kept from Lola by the Cackles, Hackwell and Mrs. Norval:

"It seemed that he had fallen into someone's wicked spell
And I wept to see him suffer, though I didn't know him well"

The last passage is about her finally figuring out what her place should be and her father coming to take her back:

"Now my tapestry's unraveling; he's come to take me back."

Slavery Is Dead, but its Ghost Resurrects to the Present

Which way is "Home?"

The mention of “slavery” brings up the image of hearing the constant, endless whippings from the whites, leaving slash marks on the back of blacks’ that becomes a permanent scar in history. However, further reflection upon the term “slavery” leads to the idea that slavery does not remain in the veins of the blacks’, but has been spread to individuals who cross the border to what is known as the land of “freedom”.

In Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s Who Would Have Thought It, the character, Lola Medina, lacks agency as she symbolizes a nameless and faceless minority individual who crosses the border to escape from the imprisonment of the Indians and winds up as a “slave” in the Norval’s home. Slapped in the middle between two so-called "homes”, the little girl ends up alone and homeless.

Although the era of slavery ended in 1863, nine years before Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s novel was published, the ghost of slavery resurrects and lingers in the shadows as Lola Medina’s story unfolds. Living in the Norval’s home, she was no freer than a slave from the conceited Mrs. Norval. Instead of being an actual slave, Lola’s lifestyle followed a similar lead to slavery – trapped. In Borderlands, Gloria Anzaldua describes living on the edge of the U.S.-Mexican borderline that divides the two worlds and distinguishes “us” from “them”. Anzaldua illustrates different ethnic individuals who crossed the border as “faceless, nameless, invisible, taunted” (Anzaldua 33). Rather than placing Lola into the spotlight, Ruiz de Burton blends her into the background because it paints a picture of those who step foot onto the other side of the borderline. The arrival of Lola Medina is given the title “The Little Black Girl”. As opposed to titling the chapter with “Lola Medina”, Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton chooses to introduce the girl as a nameless and faceless figure because this signifies the notion that she is a nobody to the new world in which she has crossed over to.

Throughout the novel, Lola has been trapped within the U.S. but is free when she finally crosses the border out of this country. Just as the whites are the slaves’ masters, Mrs. Norval became Lola’s master, taking full control over her. On the night of her arrival, Lola was sent to sleep in the maids’ room, but not feeling belonged, she decided to sleep on a mat outside of Mrs. Norval’s room, “Suppressing her sobs, quietly wrapping her shawl around her quivering body” (Ruiz de Burton 31). Metaphorically, Ruiz de Burton uses this image to indicate the fact that it’s as if Lola was sleeping outside in the cold night on an unwelcome mat, crying herself to sleep. Her “home” with the Norval’s is uninvited and to return to her “home” with the Indians is offering them to recapture her all over again. Trapped in the fissure between two different locations, Lola Medina has no place to call “home”. She becomes a living, walking border filled with her vs. the world.

Related Items

  • [1] MIA- "Paper Planes" Only the chorus of this song relates to the book. The part where it says "All I wanna do is BANG, BANG, BANG, BANG....then I'll take your money!" It's similar to the way everybody was trying to get a portion of Lola's money in the novel.

Text References

Anzaldúa, Gloria. “The Homeland, Aztlán.” Borderlands/La Frontera. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1999.

Brady, Mary Patt. “Border.” Keywords for American Cultural Studies. Ed. Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler. New York: NYU Press, 2008.

Ruiz de Burton, María Amparo. Who Would Have Thought It? Houston: Art Público Press, 1995.