with Michal Hoschan­der Malen

Bar­bara Bietz, author of The Sun­down Kid, talks to Michal Hoschan­der Malen about the pio­neer Jews of the Amer­i­can West, their recep­tion in the wide open spaces of their new homes and the build­ing of new communities.

Michal Hoschan­der Malen: Among the oth­er fine val­ues peek­ing out from with­in the text, the sto­ry per­son­i­fies the Jew­ish con­cept of Hachnasat Orchim, or wel­com­ing out­siders, and also high­lights the impor­tance of fam­i­ly. What gave you the idea for this par­tic­u­lar story?

Bar­bara Bietz: I have read and researched a lot about the brave fam­i­lies who set­tled the South­west. While I am par­tic­u­lar­ly drawn to the sto­ries of Jew­ish fam­i­lies, what deeply touched me was the way dif­fer­ent groups came togeth­er in sup­port of one anoth­er. I want­ed to cap­ture that sense of coop­er­a­tion in a mean­ing­ful way. I have said before that The Sun­down Kid is my love let­ter to all those fam­i­lies that came before me, who cre­at­ed com­mu­ni­ties that are still thriv­ing today.

When I set out to write The Sun­down Kid, my heart was real­ly with Mama, who promis­es some things will nev­er change, even in a new home far away. How hard it must have been to leave a whole life behind! I flipped the per­spec­tive to the boy who wants to help his Mama feel at home in the wide open spaces,” so he invites their new neigh­bors for Shab­bat din­ner. The Jew­ish val­ue of wel­com­ing strangers is as impor­tant today as it was in bib­li­cal times. Our dif­fer­ences dis­ap­pear over a shared meal.

MHM: Have you spent time in that part of the Unit­ed States, your­self? Did you have a par­tic­u­lar town in mind for the set­ting as you haven’t spec­i­fied one? Did you do any research on the time period?

BB: I was born and raised in Cal­i­for­nia and went to col­lege and grad school in Tuc­son, Ari­zona. My iden­ti­ty is deeply root­ed in the South­west. Many Jew­ish immi­grant sto­ries began at Ellis Island, but not all fam­i­lies stayed in New York. I did exten­sive research over a long peri­od of time before I wrote The Sun­down Kid. I was inspired by Pio­neer Jews by Har­ri­et and Fred Rochlin. I had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to hear Har­ri­et speak about the lives of Jew­ish pio­neers. When she said, We were there, too,” my heart skipped a beat. Mov­ing for­ward, I was espe­cial­ly inter­est­ed in the strong women who main­tained Jew­ish rit­u­als in spite of great challenges.

I dis­cov­ered an anony­mous fam­i­ly in Tuc­son had com­mis­sioned a series of dolls to hon­or Jew­ish pio­neer women. I wrote an arti­cle about the dolls for Doll World mag­a­zine. A won­der­ful artist named Andrea Kali­nows­ki did a series of mixed media paint­ings of quilts to hon­or Jew­ish pio­neer women, and I was deeply touched by her work, too. I love the notion of using tra­di­tion­al­ly fem­i­nine art forms to share sto­ries of women.

MHM: Do you have a back­sto­ry for the fam­i­ly who made the long trek from East to West? What did they hope to find? How did they think life would unfold for them­selves so far away from an estab­lished Jew­ish community? 

BB: My back­sto­ry for the fam­i­ly is about hope — the uni­ver­sal hope that fam­i­lies have shared his­tor­i­cal­ly. The hope of being able to sup­port their fam­i­lies, prac­tice their faith in peace, and cre­ate a mean­ing­ful future for their children.

MHM: You focused on the role of Shab­bat and on the role of food as two of the com­po­nents in the glue” that binds Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties and here is used to cre­ate bonds with oth­ers, as well. Why do you think these and oth­er touch­stones are so impor­tant from gen­er­a­tion to generation?

BB: Rit­u­als con­nect us to one anoth­er. The smell and taste of some­thing famil­iar will always evoke an emo­tion. Shar­ing food we love, or food that has a tra­di­tion­al sig­nif­i­cance ele­vates the eat­ing expe­ri­ence from bio­log­i­cal to spir­i­tu­al. Shab­bat gives us pause to hon­or a day, and each oth­er, in a mean­ing­ful way. The great­est gift we can give our chil­dren is the tra­di­tion of rituals.

MHM: How do you think teach­ers, librar­i­ans, youth lead­ers, etc., can use this sto­ry to help chil­dren devel­op a sense of com­mu­ni­ty and to help them fur­ther under­stand its value?

BB: My goal as a writer is to share a sto­ry that res­onates with read­ers. I am also pas­sion­ate about edu­ca­tion­al oppor­tu­ni­ties for chil­dren. I was very lucky to find an edu­ca­tion­al spe­cial­ist who cre­at­ed a beau­ti­ful edu­ca­tion­al guide for The Sun­down Kid, which is avail­able on my web­site for any inter­est­ed par­ents or teachers. 

MHM: A good pic­ture book is a per­fect blend between the text and the art. How do you feel about the illus­tra­tor’s vision of your idea?

BB: John Kan­zler brought this sto­ry to life so beau­ti­ful­ly. He cre­at­ed sub­text that added depth and mean­ing in such a thought­ful way. I am in awe of his work.

MHM: What can we expect next from the pen of Bar­bara Bietz? Is there any­thing com­ing up in the near future for us to look for­ward to? 

BB: I am work­ing very hard on a few projects, includ­ing a pic­ture book biog­ra­phy and a mid­dle-grade his­tor­i­cal novel.

Michal Hoschan­der Malen is the edi­tor of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s young adult and chil­dren’s book reviews. She has lec­tured on a vari­ety of top­ics relat­ing to chil­dren and books and her great­est joy is read­ing to her grand­chil­dren on both sides of the ocean.

Relat­ed Content:

Michal Hoschan­der Malen is the edi­tor of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A for­mer librar­i­an, she has lec­tured on top­ics relat­ing to lit­er­a­cy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.