Elan, Son of Two Peoples – Author Interview
Kids Book Club – October
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Historical fiction is so important! I love giving my children a glimpse into the past, and as a bonus, this book sparks discussions about cultural differences within families and how they can be incorporated into children’s identities in a positive way.
Elan learns about the importance of his mother’s Acoma Pueblo heritage and his father’s Jewish heritage. Sometimes, cultural and religious differences in families can cause discord, but in this beautiful story, we see how love, honor, and respect for tradition are taught by both parents to strengthen their son’s identity.
The story is based on the life of Solomon Bibo, who immigrated from Prussia to new Mexico in 1869 and married Juana Valle, the granddaughter of a former Acoma Pueblo chief. In 1888, Solomon was appointed governor of the Acoma Pueblo people. The family later moved to San Francisco to seek Jewish religious education for their children.
In the story, Elan and his parents take a railway journey from San Francisco to Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1898. Elan had just turned 13 and wore his grandfather’s tallit to read from the Torah as a Bar Mitzvah. He was going to New Mexico to see where his Mama (Naya) was born, the granddaughter of a Pueblo Indian chief.
When they arrived in Albuquerque, Elan spends time with his cousin and listens to his grandfather tell stories. On Shabbat, Elan reads from the Torah wearing a new tallit made by his mother and tells his cousin about becoming a Bar Mitzvah. Then his cousin tells him about becoming a man in the Pueblo tribe and going hunting and fishing with the men.
Elan dresses in traditional Pueblo clothing for the ceremony and afterwards does the traditional Eagle Dance. When it’s time to go home, Elan packs his eagle feathers next to his Torah. He looked at his tallit and the symbols representing both cultures. He remembered what his mother said about his roots being sturdy and deep as the oak tree.
Author Heidi Smith Hyde says that she feels compelled to portray the Jewish immigrant experience in her journey as an author. She writes historical fiction books for children about little known stories in the Jewish immigrant experience, including Emmanuel and the Hannukah Rescue, Feivel’s Flying Horses, and Shanghai Sukkah.
After reading Elan, Son of Two Peoples, I contacted Heidi to see if she would share her experience researching and writing about Solomon Bilbo’s family. Here is the interview.
Why did you decide to write about Solomon Bibo and his Family?
As an author, I love shedding light on the Jewish immigrant experience. My literary travels have brought me to Coney Island, Eastern Europe, Shanghai, the mesa, and New Bedford, the whaling capital of the world. Whenever I do speaking engagements, I remind my audience that our Jewish ancestors have been everywhere, and have done everything!
When thinking about the many contributions Jewish immigrants have made to American history and culture, figures such as Albert Einstein, Louis Brandeis and Jonas Salk often come to mind. What people may not know, however, is that Jews have been involved in a myriad of professions. We’ve been cowboys, peddlers, mayors, astronomers, boxers, civil rights workers, composers, physicists, silver miners, and more!
Contrary to popular belief, not all East European Jewish immigrants settled in the Lower East Side. Some of the more adventurous souls ventured West to seek their fortune in rugged territories such as Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico. Here they found work as peddlers, prospectors and storekeepers. One such adventurer was Solomon Bibo, a Jewish immigrant from Prussia, whose life inspired Elan, Son of Two Peoples.
An outspoken advocate for Native American rights, Bibo worked tirelessly to secure more land for the Pueblo. Eventually he was appointed Pueblo governor, the Acoma equivalent of a tribal chief.
Though America’s Jews have been few in number, we have made important contributions to art, literature, science, politics and more. Ours is a history of survival and transformation, and I hope my books reflect that.
What was it like to research the story of Solomon and Juana? What sources did you consult?
One helpful source was Jewish Heroes of the Wild West, by Marion Maidens and M.L. Marks. This interesting anthology chronicles the lives of four 19th century Jewish immigrants who played important roles in the development of the West. For me, the research process is like going on a treasure hunt. I love unearthing interesting facts and then figuring out how to transform that information into a meaningful story. I often tell children that the study of history is like Daylight Savings, enabling us to “turn back the clocks” and see how other people lived their lives.
In this story, we learn that Elan is the son of a Jewish father and Native American mother, and that he learned about the history of each of their cultures while preparing to participate in both coming of age ceremonies. Do you think it’s important for kids today to learn about their parents’ cultures and traditions? If so, why?
Absolutely! My first book, Mendel’s Accordion, emphasizes the importance of tradition and Jewish continuity. In the story, the accordion is a metaphor for our Jewish past. We can’t lock it away in a box; it must be treasured and shared. We are our present, but we would be nothing without our past. We can never forget the generations of people who came before us.
Elan’s mother says, “Always remember, you are the son of two proud nations whose roots are as sturdy and deep as this oak tree.” How is this advice significant for children today?
At the synagogue where I work, we welcome many interfaith families into our midst. As a religious educator, I believe in the importance of sharing one’s story, whatever that story may be. Children take great pride in knowing where they come from, and I think this knowledge makes them more resilient and self-aware, too. We are all links in the chain of tradition.
Do you have any tips for sharing family history, traditions, and culture with children?
Make it joyous! When our sons were children, we read Jewish books aloud to them, and played Jewish music in the car. Their great grandparents shared stories with them about life in the “old country.” Together we celebrated our tradition through food, prayer and song. These are experiences our children will always remember; hopefully, they will pass this gift onto their children, as well. As an author, I feel compelled to portray the Jewish immigrant experience in an authentic way, and to convey key Jewish values and ideals, such as “Zikaron” (remembrance).