Ellis Island reviewed

At long last here is the promised review of the latest book I read for research slash pleasure. I have an idea in my head for a new novel and I am setting it on Ellis Island at the turn of the century. I don’t have any living relatives who can tell me what it was like when my German, Irish, and French ancestors came to America; I am not even sure if they came through Ellis, so I have a lot of research to do.

My first order of business is to read other books set in the same time period to get my story percolator percolating. I love love love the cover of Kate Kerrigan’s Ellis Island, and hey, with a title like Ellis Island, it was the perfect way to begin the arduous task of learning everything there is to know about Ellis, right? Here is the interesting thing about this nicely-written book. Interesting and strange. Interesting and strange and perplexing.

The main character telling the story? She spends maybe three or four hours total on Ellis. For the whole book. And the book encompasses years of her life.  And they are not even pivotal hours. I could see if the half-day she spent on Ellis made some kind of door-of-no-return impact on her life. But she has the easiest transitions from boat to land you can have as a third class immigrant. And I’ve done enough research already to know it wasn’t always that easy. If you had any kind of physical ailment, you were in for a rough ride, either back to where you came from or an extended stay at Ellis’s hospital. 

It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy the story, I did. In a nutshell, Elle Hogan and her childhood sweetheart husband, John, are happily honeymooning on their farm in Ireland—until John, a soldier for the Irish Republican Army, is shot and left disabled. With her husband needing an expensive operation to be able to work again, Ellie emigrates to New York City to work as a maid for a wealthy socialite to earn the money for the surgery. On the streets of New York, Ellie is introduced to glam and sophistication, and she is soon tempted by the allure of material charms and a dashing young suitor who can give her anything she wants. She comes to a point of decision as the many months go by and the surgery has long since been paid for: stay and live the charmed dream or go home to the man she is married to and once couldn’t imagine living without.

Great storyline, right? It was. How much Ellis Island was there?

What island?

Nice read. Pulls at the heart. Gorgeous cover. But the title baffles me. I am scratching my head looking for the metaphor here, thinking maybe there is one. So far, no revelations. Perhaps you have an idea out there?

Author: Susan

This post has 12 Comments

  1. Cindy Thomson on February 10, 2012 at 8:48 pm

    I loved this story. It was a true love story. I even met the author (who lives in Ireland) when she came to NYC for a book tour. I also read this book for research. I'm writing a three book series called The Ellis Island Series. I'm not sure why it never occurred to me that Ellis Island itself had little to do with this story, at least not on the surface. Most immigrants had little trouble getting through the process on Ellis Island. It's the ones who did that we hear most about. I learned a lot from the Immigrant Museum on Ellis Island. I'd love to go back and go through it again. Ellis Island is a kind of icon that represents the immigrant experience and I suppose that's where the title came from.

  2. Susan Meissner on February 10, 2012 at 11:57 pm

    Cindy, I need to call you sometime and talk Ellis with you! I would love to go that museum someday. Would love to hear your takeaways from it…

  3. katekerrigan on February 13, 2012 at 11:18 am

    Hi Susan (hi CIndy!) – so sorry you found the title misleading – I guess the place itself made such an impression on me an the name of it resonates so deeply with Irish emigrants. With the boat journey – please be assured I looked into it very thoroughly, and was surprised myself at how easy the journey was in comparison to how it had been pre war. The particular ship I featured, like many others at that time, had been a recommissioned, refurbished war ship. Sea travel went from horrific to really quite comfortable more or less overnight. People in rural Ireland lived a life of such poverty and what that may have been viewed as terrible hardship in 3rd class travel from our perspective; sharing a small sleeping cabin with strangers, poor medical supervision – were nothing compared with what many of these immigrants were leaving behind. To get water from a tap was a miracle, blankets, warm food three times a day – that journey would have been an experience of comfort – even luxury for many of them. Of course I had a picture in my head of how things should be (terrible journey) but the research told a different story – and that – for me – is the challenge and the thrill of writing novels set in the past. Thank you so much for the great review Susan – and hope to stay in touch. Kate Kerrigan

  4. Susan Meissner on February 13, 2012 at 4:27 pm

    Kate! I am awed and honored that you stopped by. Now I wish I had said more about how much I liked the story and not as much about the stutter-step that the title gave me. I did love your story, and the thing about the title is more a quirk of mine than of the book's.

    The most amazing thing about Ellie and the way you told her story is how much I wanted her to give in to the pull of material comforts after she'd had a taste of them when I KNOW things come and go, only being loved and giving love last. I know that and yet still I felt the tension of the choice she had to make. Well done.

    And I am glad to hear you say the immigrant experience on Ellis improved greatly after the war, as the story I plan to tell is pre-war and I want to make it difficult! My main character's a nurse at Ellis Island's hospital and the immigrant she falls for arrives in New York harbor sick with fever, grieving, and in need of a compassionate soul…

    I would love to stay in touch with you. Thanks again for your comments!

  5. Cindy Thomson on February 13, 2012 at 6:18 pm

    Oh, this is so cool being here with the two of you! I love the stories you both write!

    Susan: Call anytime! You can send me an email cindy @ cindyswriting.com

    I think that would be a great perspective since little has been told about the people who actually worked on Ellis Island. I have the photographer, Augustus Sherman, briefly in my story in book one. I read recently that at the Immigrant Museum they are expanding the exhibits to cover immigration from the 17th century to present day. They had just begun some of it when I was there. So many stories there!!

  6. katekerrigan on February 13, 2012 at 9:35 pm

    Oooh – like the sound of that story. Ellis Island was such a wonderful place because it represented such hope – a new beginning -families greeting each other on the “kissing steps” but if you were sick and denied entry – horrendous to have come all that way and face the prospect of being sent home. A wonderful premise – look forward to reading it and some of your other books as of now. Would love to stay in touch.
    P.S a wonderful book about ship travel from Ireland to America is Star of The Sea by Joseph O'Connor – set during the potato famine – a real classic. Worth reading just for his massive reading list at the back. very humbling! x

  7. katekerrigan on February 13, 2012 at 9:37 pm

    Did I just write two sentences with three “wonderfuls”? That's what happens when mid-novel with scary deadline. Literally – lose words!

  8. Susan Meissner on February 13, 2012 at 11:09 pm

    Kate, your comments, insights and recommendations are wonderful in triplicate. No worries. Thanks!

  9. Cindy Thomson on February 15, 2012 at 11:01 pm

    I'm jumping in and taking Kate's recommendation. Just ordered that book. Thanks!

  10. Susan Meissner on February 16, 2012 at 12:15 am

    Me,too, Cindy!

  11. Anonymous on February 17, 2012 at 9:56 pm

    Thanks, all, for the recommendations and background chat. Love it. I will be reading Kate's book. Not only Susan's recommendation, which never sends me wrong, but a family of Irish heritage, too.

    IF you need more background to get your story ideas percolating, Sus, (which I doubt), consider reading Lynn Austin's Until We Reach Home. While the MC's are a trio of sisters from Sweden, they do have a detailed and extended stay at Ellis Island's hospital.

    Happy reading, all!
    Mary Kay

  12. Ajlounyinjurylaw on February 28, 2012 at 3:24 am

    Very cool. Maybe a visit to Ellis Island will open some doors to the past for you.

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