The Lleshi family’s story in Katherine Paterson’s novel The Day of the Pelican seems especially appropriate at this Thanksgiving time, when so many of us think about our own families coming to this country as immigrants. Many families, like the Lleshis, could not speak the language or understand the subtleties of the culture when they first arrived here. What is it like for Baba, the head of his household, to have to rely on his children to translate for him, not only the language but also a gesture or custom? What is it like to watch your children set aside many of the things you’ve taught them in favor of new friends, new fads, new values?
As much as he wants his children to excel in their new surroundings, Baba also wants them to honor their family’s traditions, and these two desires are not always an easy fit. Assimilation often trumps tradition. In Pelican, Katherine Paterson explores the complexities of these competing influences. After the events of 9/11, Meli and Mehmet’s teammates lash out at them—verbally in Meli’s case, and physically in Mehmet’s case—because they are Muslim. Neither of them wishes to return to school, but Baba tells them they must. The teens’ coaches pay a call at the Lleshi home, apologize to Mr. and Mrs. Lleshi and tell them that they will remove the offending students from the team. But Baba tells the coaches that such a step would seed more hatred toward Meli and Mehmet. “My children are strong,” he says. “They have endured many hard things in their short lives. They can also endure this.” In her interview (below), Katherine Paterson discusses the importance of the scene between Baba and the coaches, and the respect these coaches gain for Mr. Lleshi.
It is the immigrant story. A family arrives in America to gain a better life for their children. Often the children adapt more readily to the language and ways of their new life. The challenge to the older generation is to keep the family together in the face of these other forces of influence, and the challenge to the new generation is to remember what is important even as they acquire knowledge and skills that will serve them well in their new homeland. The Lleshi family’s story reminds us of the great sacrifice all immigrant families make when they courageously arrive at our borders and on our shores.