I have just finished reading a delightful surprise. Oscar’s Gift: Planting Words with Oscar Micheaux showed up unexpectedly in my inbox, sent to me by brand new children’s author, Lisa Rivero. Folks, this is an author to watch! Ms. Rivero has combined a scrap of American history with imagination, sensitivity, humanity and vivid imagery. The result? A powerfully gripping tale of determination and beauty. In essence, Ms. Rivero has captured the soul of America.
Tomas is an eleven-year-old boy of Swedish descent with a gift for words. But his chance at a dream is stolen away when his mother wins the land lottery and receives a claim on the newly-opened Indian territory of South Dakota.
“Before I met Oscar, I thought that life was a game of chance…Like the game with walnut shells Papa and I saw once at a county fair. A man put a tiny round stone under one of three walnut shells. Then he moved the shells left and right, over and under, back and forth so fast that I lost track of which shell had the stone…No matter how closely I watched and how sure I was that I had kept my eye on the right shell, I always guessed wrong.
I used to think that life was like that walnut shell game.
It didn’t matter how hard I tried or how much I hoped. In the end, whether I chose the right shell was pure luck.”
As luck would have it, Tomas would not be apprenticed at a newspaper. He was going to become a farmer. And as luck would have it, his father, who worked so hard to own his own land, would not.
Tomas’ mother remarries a Lakota man who “didn’t smile on the outside. Once in a while, though, I began to recognize a smile under his face, if I looked closely enough.” Joe is a good man, but living in a mixed family–an interracial family–creates challenges of its own. Especially when Joe’s little girls attend school and Tomas cannot. That Joe would let his girls attend is praiseworthy. His own experience in a white man’s school illustrates another conflict in the history of the Great Plains. “They said they needed to kill the Indian in us to save the man,” Joe tells us. “The Indian and man are one and the same. They could not kill me, and I didn’t need to be saved.”
In South Dakota, Tomas meets a neighboring homesteader, Oscar Micheaux, who would become an American novelist and film maker. Oscar faces his own persecution at the hand of whites. But it is Oscar who helps Tomas come to terms with his lot in life. It is Oscar who helps Tomas recognize that he can write his own future.
“‘This grand prairie,’ he (Oscar) swept his hand toward the door, ‘is like a blank piece of paper. The way I see it, we come here to write our story on the land, acre by acre. Every homesteader’s claim tells a different tale…Being a writer is no different from being a homesteader.’”
Ms. Rivero’s words flow onto the page like liquid beauty, and drinking them up is more than just an entertaining reading experience, it’s soul-satisfying. If I haven’t convinced you of that already, consider a few more of my favorite images:
“His voice was deep and rich and slow like low thunder before a storm that forces you to stop what you are doing and listen.”
“Nothing in life is fair or unfair. All we have is the work we do and the thoughts we think.”
“Back then I felt that life was not my own, that I was like a tumbleweed blown across the prairie, occasionally getting stuck on a fence or caught in a tree, but mostly bouncing from place to place without direction.”
And “The day was hot and ripe for a thunderstorm, just as I felt inside, as if any moment the sky would burst open and drench the world with its ripeness.”
Oscar’s Gift is a lovely, touching story of hope and purpose. It is rare that I have absolutely nothing negative to say about a book, but in this case, it is true. Except, perhaps, that it was too short. Not that I was unhappy with the ending. I simply wasn’t ready yet to slide this slice of America back into history. Perhaps this experience on the plains will prompt me to dig a little into Oscar Micheaux’s real life on my own.
I highly recommend you purchase your own copy of this one, but Ms. Rivero has been kind enough to donate one paperback copy of Oscar’s Gift. Click here for giveaway details.
Check out Lisa’s website.
Tomorrow – interview with Lisa Rivero.