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Heartbreaking, historically informative, and beautifully illustrated, Always An Olivia:A Remarkable Family History is the true family history of scholar and author, Olivia Herron (Nappy Hair) whose family has preserved their Jewish traditions even seven generations removed from the family’s Jewish matriarch. While the story is being told to a granddaughter in 2007 by her great-grandmother, the narrative actually tells the story of their ancestor Sarah who, hundreds of years ago, was the Italian Jewish granddaughter of victims of Jewish pogroms in Spain and Portugal. She is captured by pirates to be ransomed off but saved by another captive with whom she falls in love and sails to the USA to avoid recapture, death or the burning of the homes and businesses of the Jews to whom she was supposed to be ransomed. Still afraid of anti-Jewish violence, Sarah adopts the middle name Olivia instead of using her given middle name, Shulamit.
In the U.S., customs settles Sarah and her husband on the Georgia Islands in the free, black African Geechee community. Sarah and her husband have children and their children marry Geechees. Their descendants continue to practice the Jewish rituals that Sarah remembered (because, the text lets us know, she forgot many) including lighting the Shabbat candles on Friday nights. The women are the keepers of the tradition from being in charge of lighting the Shabbat candles to the legacy of naming a daughter of each generation Olivia or, as Sarah requested, a name that means “peace”. They choose to preserve the original name by naming a girl in each generation “Olivia” after Sarah.
From the opening line in which the girl child Carol Olivia asks her great-grandmother about black U.S.American slavery and is told that her family experienced enslavement in Egypt, witnessed U.S.American chattel slavery, but was not descended from enslaved black U.S.Americans, this biography is an eye opening account of the different histories of blacks and mixed racial heritage people in the U.S. since the 16th century.
Despite the book’s engagement of the heavy subject matter of slavery, racial and religious persecution, kidnapping, family separation, and near identity loss, there is a hopeful tone in the reading, achieved through James Tugeau’s use of light in his dramatic pastel illustrations, the tone of the narrative, and narrative breaks in the relaying of violence to fully describe life in peaceful times. Thus, this story of a resilient family communicates the necessity of remembering family history. Always an Olivia makes it clear that despite their family history of terror, renewal, survival and reinvention, the family of Olivias is proud of, and takes comfort in, their family traditions and heritage.
Recommendation: Highly Recommended; Ages 8-Adult (buy)
Reviewer: Omilaju Miranda
As simple as the language needs to be for a child to easily connect with the narrative, this story is dynamic in its attention to a child facing major changes in her home life when her grandfather arrives from China. Not only does Helen, our protagonist, have to give her up her bedroom and her view of the cargo train that runs outside of her room but, her mother becomes a perfectionist, and her grandfather’s is nearly mute in the household because he doesn’t speak English. But Helen, a little lost in her relationship with her grandfather, is persistent in observing him and trying to connect with him. Ultimately, she makes the connection by mistake in a sentimental manner that I felt was “sweet”. Like her, her grandfather likes watching the trains; together they count the cars and teach each other English and Chinese. Towards the end of the story, the family commits to privately learning Chinese through a computer program her Euro-American father has purchased; one gets the feeling that Helen and her grandfather are going to feel “at home” again. I was gratified to see this book give attention to the American Chinese children who don’t know Chinese and didn’t “fit in” at Chinese language school because the dominant narrative of Asian life still seems to be the immigrant story and first generation story of children who are fluent in the Chinese language. Helen and her siblings are first generation American children of mixed Euro and Chinese heritage who, despite her parents attempts to integrate Chinese culture into their lives, are not immersed in Chinese culture. Any child of immigrant parents whose lives make them consider themselves American descendents of their parents’ culture instead of members of the non-United States culture, will identify with Helen and see something of themselves in Helen’s story. All others will enjoy observing Helen’s lived identity and the multigenerational bonding experience in this simply told, complex story.
Recommendation: Highly Recommended; ages 4-8
Reviewer: Omilaju Miranda