A Girl from Oklahoma

9781419708466Searching for Sarah Rector: The Richest Black Girl in America
By Tonya Bolden
(Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2014, $21.95, New York)

In 1911, oil drillers found their quarry on a parcel of land in Oklahoma. One of the many homesteads allocated by the U.S government, the property technically belonged to Sarah Rector, a nine-year old African American girl. As a result, Sarah instantly become very wealthy – newspapers proclaimed her America’s richest black girl. Suddenly, a child from an ordinary background became the subject of controversy. Journalists, black and white, took stances on her position. Some proclaimed she was exploited; others questioned her right to prosperity. Then, for a time, Sarah seemed to be missing. Rumors about her whereabouts exploded. In the media frenzy, Sarah’s real story got lost.

In Searching for Sarah Rector, Tonya Bolden examines this strange chapter in America’s history.  She devotes much of the book to explaining the history behind the Rectors’ presence in Oklahoma. Readers will be surprised to learn that some nineteenth-century Native Americans owned slaves, whom they took West with them. The Rectors were descendents of these slaves.  She also explores the government’s practice of allotting land to citizens and the various media controversies Sarah’s case inspired. Documents, photographs, and text boxes supplement Bolden’s narrative. However, nearly every page of Searching for Sarah Rector contains supplemental background information accompanied by an image; sometimes, this information appears before Bolden has introduced the particular topic. Although these pictures and text boxes make the book visually appealing, their near-ubiquity makes an otherwise engaging narrative somewhat disjointed. Readers can never quite settle into Sarah’s story; the book’s very format constantly jolts them out of it.

Searching for Sarah Rector introduces readers to some little-known aspects of American history. It also raises questions about the nature of media controversies. Educators should use the book to encourage teens to think critically about the veracity of stories the media just won’t drop.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

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