#70 – Oscar’s Gift: Planting Words With Oscar Micheaux by Lisa Rivero

 5 Stars

The year is 1904 on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, and eleven-year-old Tomas, a son of Swedish immigrants, thinks that life is a game of chance.  Now you see it.  Now you don’t.  His father.  School.  Dreams for the future.  It doesn’t matter how hard he tries or how much he hopes.  In the end, everything he loves can disappear with the delivery of a telegram.

Then one hot day, on a dusty street in Bonesteel, South Dakota, he sees a tall, dark, city-slicker of a man as they both are trying their luck in a land lottery. Tomas does not know that he has just met the man who will one day write novels about his homesteading life on the Great Plains and be known as America’s first African-American feature film maker.  Oscar will also become his friend and mentor.  Could it be that Tomas’s luck is changing?”

By intertwining the fictional Tomas with the real life Oscar Micheaux (mee-show), Ms. Rivero has written historical-fiction that gives the reader a look at homesteading and a feel for the hardships these new South Dakota landowners endured, as they carved out a home and a life on the then brutal lands.  Tomas is the main character and Oscar Micheaux the subject, but the land, the weather, and the work become characters changing the landscape and the lives of the circa 1800 settlers.

After graduation, Tomas plans to become a journalist.  He wrote exceptionally well with a perspective his teacher thought would take him far.  When a load of railroad ties rolled off a wagon, landing on top of Tomas’ father, the ten-year-old boy’s life changed dramatically.  Without his father, Tomas bolted into manhood to care for his mother.  That traumatic change took him to South Dakota so his mother could enter a homestead lottery.  Also trying to find the homesteading office was Oscar Micheaux, a tall, skinny, eloquent man of twenty.  It was not until Tomas’ mother won a plot of land did he see Oscar.  Now neighbors, Oscar became a friend and a mentor to Tomas.  Oscar ordered boxes of books, which he used to partially pay Tomas for the work he did readying the land for the next year’s crops.  Tomas finally received the education he thought fate had taken away.  Tomas one day became that reporter.

History was never a good subject to me.  I never wanted to learn it and I certainly never wanted to read anything historical.  Maybe if I had had access to historical–fiction like Oscar’s Gift my attitude would have been different.  This is an entertaining book.  While learning about homesteading, the hardships, the architecture, the lottery, the educational system, and, of course, Oscar Micheaux, I was entertained through a story about a blended family’s journey, early racism involving the American Indians who lost the land the American homesteaders “won” and made into their new home.  The story never dragged or bogged down.  I did not realize I was actually learning some things I had not known.  I read this book for the review, never expecting to learn anything from Tomas and his family’s struggles, and Tomas and Oscar’s friendship.

The pages flew by and I found all of it interesting, and parts emotional, such as when Tomas was told to walk his step-sisters to school (they were reluctant to go, never having gone before), and then he returned home for his daily chores, all the while knowing he was the one who wanted to attend school more than anything.  He missed the books he could read and the things he could learn and felt it unfair that his new sisters were reluctant, even scared, to go to school, when he would love to go back.  I agreed with him.  I cannot imagine being in a one-room school were one teacher taught every grade, as students young and old(er),waited for their turn.  Those kids must have had a wondrous amount of patience.

There is much unfair life in this story.  Oscar’s Gift does have moments of sheer joy and happy times, just not in equal measure.  The difficulties are not such that they make the book difficult to read—just the opposite.  Oscar’s Gift is written in such a way that the words simply flow off your tongue.  The story does not stop and start, tossing readers into the air only to clunk back down, unsure of what just happened.

Ms Rivero has crafted an excellent historical-fiction about Oscar Micheaux’s early life as a homesteader, writer, and mentor/teacher.  Remarkably, she grew up on the same South Dakota Rosebud Indian Reservation that Oscar Micheaux homesteaded, until a draught in 1911 made farming so difficult that he left.  Oscar really did work for the railroad and homesteaded.  He was also an author and a filmmaker.

Tomas narrates a story that is close to that of Oscar.  The difficulty homesteading, the hardships of Mother Nature, and then one day becoming the writer he wanted to become.  He shows us a twenty-year-old Oscar well beyond his years in maturity, intelligence, and wit.  Tomas shows us the generous side of Oscar and even a little racism through his own mother’s reactions to Oscar.  This book fits into fiction, biography, history, and literature.  I think it would be difficult to find a reason not to like Oscar’s Gift.

Oscar’s Gift

Author:  Lisa Rivero
Publisher:  CreateSapce
Publication Date:  August 21,2011
Number of Pages: 130
ISBN: 978-1-4662-1559-7