- Always an Olivia: A Remarkable Family History
If your family has not had a tradition of storytellers, then some of the most precious family tales have probably been lost. Sometimes all it takes to get the stories flowing is a curious child asking the right question, like “Grandma, what was it like when you were my age?”
Carolivia Herron, the author of Always an Olivia, is blessed with a rich family history and tellers to recount it. In this absorbing picture book for children in grades 2–4, the curious child is the author herself at age ten or so; the family storyteller is her great-grandmother Olivia. Over the kitchen table (always the site of many a fine tale), Carol Olivia asks, “Great-Grandma Olivia, were you really alive back in slavery times?” Had the reply been that yes, she’d been alive then, had heard the Emancipation Proclamation read aloud, and had seen the happiness of all her people, the child’s question would have been answered. But Great-Grandma Olivia, a storyteller with a remarkable tale to tell, goes beyond these facts. The family story is a wild ride, spanning hundreds of years, and moving from Spain to Portugal to Venice to Tripoli and finally to the Georgia Sea Islands.
On Herron’s website ( www.carolivia.org ) is a brief memoir entitled “Peacesong.” Another version of the story was published in the Spring 2001 issue of Bridges. These are, in fact, the core of this picture book, published in October of 2007. Jeremy Tugeau’s boldly-colored illustrations capture the light and dark of the story. His cover illustration is particularly resonant. In the background, ancestor Sarah Shulamit on board a pirate ship holds her lanttern [End Page 146] aloft, looking with hope toward a future not of captivity but of freedom. In the fore-ground, Great-Grandmother Olivia and Carol Olivia, seated at the kitchen table, are illuminated by Shabbat candles.
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The story that unfolds in Always an Olivia: A Remarkable Family History is one of ongoing persecution of Jewish families living in Europe. Naomi, Jacob and their five children flee Spain for the safety of a Portuguese village. There, they give up their Jewish surname and take on the name of the village, Almansil. They do not, however, give up their Jewish customs. Of continuing importance to the family are the baking of the challah and the lighting of the candles for the Shabbat.
After some time, though, they once again face persecution. With other Portuguese Jews, they flee to Venice. Generations of the Almansil family live peacefully there. In 1787 Sarah Shulamit Almansil is born, Great-Grandmother Olivia’s own great-grandmother. Her contribution to the remarkable family history is that, as a young woman, she is kidnapped by pirates who hope to be paid a ransom by wealthy Jews living in North Africa.
On board ship, James, also kidnapped but hoping to save his life by pretending to be in league with the pirates, convinces Sarah that he can effect their escape. When they dock in Tripoli, he will be permitted to lead the bound Sarah off the ship and attempt to secure a large ransom for her. James, in sympathy with Sarah, leads her to a place of safety, a synagogue. Knowing that the pirates will soon be searching for the couple, the rabbi devises a plan. For James it will involve another ship, one belonging to the United States, and another sea voyage. For Sarah it will involve a safe hiding place. James is given money; Sarah is given Shabbat candles.
The young couple, however, agrees to remain together. Both board the ship headed for the Georgia Sea Islands. They arrive, newly married, in the year 1805.
Here the adventure ends, yet the story that explains the book’s title, Always an Olivia, gets underway. So too does the explanation of the family’s African American connection.
Sarah substitutes the middle name Olivia for Shulamit. It is this name, like Shulamit, which signifies peace and will be passed...