Title: Ellis Island
Author: Kate Kerrigan
Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books):
“Sweethearts since childhood, Ellie Hogan and her husband, John, are content on their farm in Ireland—until John, a soldier for the Irish Republican Army, receives an injury that leaves him unable to work. Forced to take drastic measures in order to survive, Ellie does what so many Irish women in the 1920s have done and sails across a vast ocean to New York City to work as a maid for a wealthy socialite.
Once there, Ellie is introduced to a world of opulence and sophistication, tempted by the allure of grand parties and fine clothes, money and mansions . . . and by the attentions of a charming suitor who can give her everything. Yet her heart remains with her husband back home. And now she faces the most difficult choice she will ever have to make: a new life in a new country full of hope and promise, or return to a life of cruel poverty . . . and love.”
Thoughts: Most immigration stories discuss the reasons one leaves a homeland for a foreign country, the hardships endured along the way and eventually some form of resolution of life in the new country. Everything about Ellis Island breaks the mold of immigration novels and forges its own path. Ultimately, the story is much richer for it.
The first half of the novel follows the traditional story-telling format. Girl meets boy, girl marries boy. The happily-ever-after, however, does not come, as both John and Ellie are swept up in the Irish revolution. Hardship follows, as one knows it must. Interestingly, Ellie’s move to New York from Ireland is never meant to be permanent, and this is where the traditional story shifts into something unique. For, she is going to earn money for her husband, rather than being the one left behind waiting to be send for later. She is the one to blaze the pioneer trail for her family, leaving all that is familiar for the unknown all because of the love she holds for John and the belief she has in their marriage. Her growing self-awareness and strength are predictable, as she lands in New York harbor during the roaring Twenties – that golden era when women were grabbing new freedoms and rights, when the spirit was one of adventure, and everyone just wanted to have fun. Ellie truly does come into her own in New York, blossoming and embracing the new culture as any modern woman is wont to do.
What gives Ellis Island its power is the continuing fidelity and love Ellie has towards her husband, even after years of separation. When forced to make a decision between her new-found freedoms and luxuries and her husband, Ellie’s decision is as surprising as it is rare. Love and sticking by that love for richer and for poorer tends to be the vows spoken but not necessarily reality. One reads about all of the immigrants who came to America for a better life but very rarely do we get a glimpse of those who opted to go back across the ocean. How does the hustle and bustle of the United States, especially during the 1920s change a person? Can one ever truly go back?
Ireland and New York in the 1920s are revealed in great detail, making the contrasts between the two worlds more transparent. The reader can feel the tension as ancient antagonisms against the British rule sparks the revolution and call for home rule. S/he can sense the pulse of energy that radiates from New York City, the clicking and clacking of heels on the sidewalks, the noise of the crowd. Ms. Kerrigan presents the attitudes, opinions, customs, and other minutiae of the day with no fuss or embellishments. Ellis Island truly is a glimpse back into the past towards a long-ago decade where everything was ripe with possibilities.
My only fault with the novel is its title. Ellis Island is so misleading. Only two brief scenes actually take place on Ellis Island, as this is not a novel about an immigrant but about a woman and her journey who just happens to go through Ellis Island on one of her stops along the way. Other than that, Ellis Island is an engaging glimpse of the past. Ellie is a character who quickly generates sympathy with the reader, and her journey of self-discovery is as pleasurable as it is fascinating from a historical perspective. An Irish village and New York City in the 1920s really were two different worlds, and her ability to maneuver through the two makes for a great story and excellent history lesson.
Thank you to Mary Sasso from Harper Perennial for my review copy!