I’ve stolen a short quote ‘ a deeply affecting book‘ from the narrative of The Last Days of Ellis Island to title my review of this poignant novel as it has had such a deep affect on me as a reader. A few years ago I visited the Ellis Island Museum while on holiday in New York, but I don’t think that is why this short but powerful book had such an impact on me. Rather I think its because it is an intimate, stripped back portrayal of humanity. It also strongly resonates with the world today.
This is a novel that won the European Union Prize for Literature – a prize so deserved in my view. At only 200 pages, this is a character-driven book full of rich detail that I urge everyone to read.
It moved and educated me as it tells the emotive tale of fictional bureaucrat John Mitchell, an officer of the US Bureau of Immigration. In a series of diary entries over nine days in November 1954, John documents his memories, happiness and guilt as he recalls the last 45 years in which he served as the ‘gatekeeper to America’. He is now the last resident of the island.
John gives us snapshots of his childhood growing up in Brooklyn, tells of his enduring love for his wife Liz, and recalls many characters that pass through the US immigration centre. Using stark prose that are unnerving to read, he also documents how the immigrants were observed, sorted and processed. Nella, a 19 year-old woman from Sardinia, and his subsequent treatment of her specifically haunts John’s memory.
The Last Days of Ellis Island is an unflinching portrait of the futile pursuit of the American Dream:
Liberty tethered securely to her rock. At times it feels as if the entire world has shrunk to the borders of this island. The island of hope and tears. The site of the miracle that destroyed and redeemed, that stripped the Irish peasant, the Calabrian shepherd, the German worker, the Polish rabbi, the Hungarian pencil pusher, of their original nationalities and transformed them into American citizens. Here they are still, a crowd of ghosts floating around me.
Everything about The Last Days of Ellis Island is so poignant and so powerful, including the front cover. It is a real photograph taken in 1905, with the focus being a woman who was an immigrant who ended up at Ellis Island after travelling there from Italy. The black and white original has been coloured in for use on the book cover.
In fact the whole novel is a visceral blend of real and fictional events and characters. For example, the character August Sherman who features in the novel was a real-life person who served as Chief Registry Clerk at Ellis Island. For 20 years he apparently took photographs of newly arrived immigrants to the island. Many of these photographs I must have seen myself when I visited the Ellis Island Museum. However from reading this novel I was shocked to discover they had also apparently had been used in ‘journals for anti-immigration racial propaganda purposes‘.
Thank you to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in The Last Days of Ellis Island blog tour. It is a true privilege to help publicise this book. A massive thank you must go to Gaëlle Josse for writing such a memorable, emotive read; and also to Natasha Lether for translating it into English. This is a book that is sure to stay with me for a long, long time.
To follow the blog tour, please see below.