What do you get when you mix Billy the Kid, Thurgood Marshall, some Apaches, a band of buffalo, a Weehawken art major, and years of Jewish genealogical research?
Why, a brightly illustrated children’s book called “Jews of the Wild West,” of course.
Kay Miller took to painting her ancestors seven years ago after she traveled to New Mexico to meet her 95-year-old relative Robert Nordhouse, a prominent character in her book, whom she briefly met as a child. She discovered that Nordhouse had a veritable laundry list of tales to tell.
He’d fought the Nazis in the mountains of Europe, became a lawyer who specialized in Native American rights and argued on behalf of the Jicarilla Apaches in Thurgood Marshall’s Supreme Court, and oversaw the building of the largest passenger tramway in the world at Sandia Peak Slopes that has been ridden by over nine million people.
“Getting along and working together is important to me. Jews can be stereotyped just like any other ethnic or religious group.” – Kay Miller
When Nordhouse told Miller how he used to slide down the banister of his grandfather’s house when he was five, she was inspired, and one of 16 portraits from her book was born.
Nordhouse was not the only part of Miller’s family with a history-making resume.
When Miller visited the New Mexico History Museum, they happened to be holding an exhibit on Jewish settlers of the west. She bought the book “Jewish Pioneers of New Mexico,” which bore her ancestor Bertha Staab on the front cover.
Miller has a stack of books full of other ancestors, too. These gave her a starting point for her years of research spent interviewing relatives, combing the internet, and reading memoirs.
As her portraits began to pile up alongside her research, she conceived the idea for “Jews of the Wild West.” Over two years and a ton of additional research on self-publishing later, she released the historical children’s tale under her own Union City-based publishing company, appropriately named Paint Horse Press.
Forging a new genre
“Jews of the Wild West” suggests a target demographic of those between the ages of eight and 108, which is apropos for a book with such brightly-colored paintings that appeal to kids, but with a subject matter and dense history apt to be fascinating to any adult with a past.
Each painting took Miller around two months to create, and her writing was informed by her years spent teaching young children at PS 140 in Manhattan’s East Village.
“The Lower East Side was 93 percent at the poverty level, so it wasn’t an easy gig,” she explained.
In addition to her work’s historical and artistic theme, her Cincinnati upbringing in an “integrated” area lends it a deeper, social meaning.
“There’s a big multicultural message in the book, too,” Miller said. “Getting along and working together is important to me. Jews can be stereotyped just like any other ethnic or religious group.”
This brand of anti-anti-Semitism, the wild western subject matter, and the book’s appeal to children places Miller in a league of her own.
“I definitely found my niche,” Miller explained, “and I don’t have a whole lot of competition.”
Just about the only Jewish cowboy children’s author around is on her side. Miller showed her book to Steve Sheinkin, Brooklyn-based nonfiction author of the popular Rabbi Harvey series, and he offered to write her a blurb.
“This book is packed with vivid paintings and great true stories about the real life adventures of Jewish pioneers in New Mexico,” Sheinkin wrote. “I spend a lot of time researching Jews in the Wild West…and I think Harvey would get a big kick out of this book!”
Author, painter, publisher, promoter
In addition to cowboy, Miller has donned many hats during her literary endeavor.
“I’m doing everything myself,” she said. “I’m contacting publications, I set up book signings, and I’m doing book presentations when I can.”
Several weeks ago, for instance, she had a book signing at Manhattan’s Rodeo Bar, “in keeping with the theme,” she said. She has dates at synagogues, Jewish heritage museums, and schools.
Authors and artists frequently dislike the notion of self promotion, but Miller’s past leant itself (yet again) to the task. “I’m used to being in front of a critical audience,” she said in reference to her teaching years, which she termed book boot camp. “It’s not easy to get media attention these days. Now you have to really get out there and bring it to people.”
As a testament to the cyclical nature history tends to take on, “Jews of the Wild West” is now sold at the self-same History Museum of New Mexico that helped to inspire its inception. It is available in paperback at www.jewsgowest.com. For more information, email email@example.com.
Gennarose Pope may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org