AOG Literature Review | “The Singing Bird,” by John Milton Oskison

The edition I ordered was a used book with a lot of writings in it and dog-eared pages. Upon finishing the book, I can definitely understand why. There is a lot to take away from this book.

The Singing Bird” was actually posthumously published by the University of Oklahoma 70 years after the death of the author, John Milton Oskison.

Plot

Essentially, this book is about a romantic tragedy within a tragedy. It involves a group of missionaries who go to Indian Territory just prior to the Trail of Tears in order to preach to the Cherokee who have been relocated there.

If there’s any criticism I have with the story is that it tends to divert from Paul’s 1st person perspective and into some correspondence (such as updates on Ellen). Another main criticism I have, without spoiling, is the ending. It happened abruptly without any real sense of closure and it felt like a cliff-hanger.

Characters

There are three important characters involved, who are the white missionaries. Paul is the young, inexperienced missionary who is the main protagonist. As the story develops, he has an attraction towards Miss Eula and an internal struggle ensues. Dan is Paul’s uncle, who he looks up to and admires. Ellen is the pampered daughter of a wealthy family who reluctantly takes part in this mission. She becomes important later in the novel as a connection between the

Although he makes a brief appearance, I am very fascinated by the Cherokee war-chief Ta-ka-to-ka. His conversation with Dan shows him as someone who appreciates the science of the universe, even going so far as to question his own native religious beliefs when being confronted with the spherical nature of Planet Earth. Likewise, Ta-ka-to-ka is willing to share Dan medicinal treatments that are native to the Cherokee.

There are historical figures that are mentioned, which establishes a 19th century milieu, with names such US Presidents Monroe and Jackson. One of them plays another crucial role and that is Sequoyah, the inventor of the Cherokee syllabary. He is depicted as a very profound thinker.

He mentions how a real man satisfies all of his senses:

When we are very old and blind and deaf, and unable to taste good things very well, there is left for us the pleasure of touching soft and smooth things like the faces and fat legs of our little grandchildren.

Themes

What I like is how the book dismantles the stereotype of the Native Americans (in this case the Cherokee), by not showing them as savages dancing around a fire; rather as intellectuals. While Paul and the missionaries are sent to bring Christianity to the natives, they are more interesting in establishing a Cherokee civilization that is based on literacy, which is why Sequoyah plays an incredible role in the story, as the historical inventor of the Cherokee syllabary.

Another theme that comes into play is the Trail of Tears, of which the Cherokee were a part of. It plays a major theme mid-way into the story. It plays a dramatic role when the Cherokees shift their fighting of the other tribes to themselves.

Writing Style

There are extended metaphors, one that is notable is the title’s namesake. A singing bird is described by the Cherokee as a species of bird that always leaves its nest. This represents Ellen throughout the book and acts as symbolism for her behavior.

Cherokee

This is a tribe well-known in the American conscious. They were originally settled in the southeastern US. As soon as gold was discovered in Georgia in 1829, President Andrew Jackson implemented Indian removal and forcibly relocated the Cherokee into the Indian Territory (in modern-day Oklahoma). They eventually settled in the modern capital of the Cherokee Nation, Tahlequah.

There is even a band of Cherokees in Texas, who are also part of the plot, especially when it comes to Dan and Sequoyah.

Relation to Native American Heritage

Oskison was the first Indian to attend Stanford University. He was born in the capital of the Cherokee Nation, Tahlequah.

This novel definitely describes the Cherokee identity during one of its most grueling periods as the main framework for the story. Although the protagonists are White, the world that the Cherokees inhabit provides a more interesting comparison, as a milieu of unknown customs that the protagonists have to understand along with the reader.

A Nest to be Made in Every American School

This book is definitely one that needs to be taught in American schools, as it provides an interesting fiction perspective into Cherokee identity.

 

Oskison, John Milton. “The Singing Bird.” University of Oklahoma Press. 2007.

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