book review

Review: Ellis Island

7 October 2020

Malgorzata Szejnert: Ellis Island
Scribe Publications, 2020
ISBN, 9781950354054, pp. 400, $49.99


To be honest, I didn’t go into Małgorzata Szejnert’s Ellis Island: A People’s History with the highest of expectations. Its title implied a generic (if slightly dull) history of America’s busiest immigration inspection station, through which over 12 million immigrants passed into New York City between 1892 and 1954.

Thankfully, I was wrong. The book is a people’s history in every sense of the term, one that cares much less about the minutiae of Ellis Island’s past than about the teeming throngs who had their first taste of the New World there. Who were these people? it wonders. What did they think and feel about this strange land? What were their stories?

 And it is these stories that ground the book, running through it like a firm backbone, lending it extraordinary richness and complexity. Szejnert recounts the stories of a wide variety of immigrants- rich and poor, young and old, men and women. No memory, or detail, or person seems too insignificant for her attention, and she treats the arrival of famed anarchist activist Emma Goldman with the same solemn care she grants eight-year-old Guiseppe Corsi’s assertion that the skyscrapers of Manhattan must be mountains, for how else were they so tall? Szejnert, who is not the historian I initially assumed her to be, but one of Poland’s premier non-fiction writers and journalists, writes very gently. Her prose (and Sean Gasper Bye’s translation from its original Polish) is simple and engaging, managing to convey emotion without being overly sentimental, neither resorting to cliches nor being bogged down by a misplaced sense of nostalgia for the past.

Szejnert makes extensive uses of primary sources– a telegram, dashed hastily off by a new arrival to his family, informing them that he has survived the journey to America; a rambling letter filled with misspelled words from a husband who hopes to bring his wife and family there as soon as he can; another from a woman whose newborn had died during the voyage. Szejnert reprints large chunks of these sources, commenting little, instead letting them speak for themselves and display with startlingthe fact that every single one of the 12 million immigrants who came to Ellis Island was a distinct person, complete with the associated bundle of loves and hopes and fears.

I think there are several reasons why I found this so touching. Perhaps because the people she focuses on are often those pushed to the dregs of history, considered too poor, too unfortunate, and too foreign to be of real significance. Perhaps because she makes stories that are usually either forgotten or derided feel like they are worth being told. Perhaps because as a prospective immigrant myself, I understand confusion and loneliness that seep through so many of those telegrams and letters. America often mythologizes its history as a nation of immigrants, but such blanket statements ignore how difficult the process was for many, how dreams of striking gold died as new arrivals saw the poverty most immigrants in New York were forced into. It forgets those branded ‘undesirables’ and turned back from Ellis Island, or those not even allowed to come that far. It forgets the racism and xenophobia from the KKK and other anti-immigrant groups that greeted Eastern Europeans. Szejnert documents all this faithfully, even as she celebrates the ambition and perseverance that brought these new Americans to America.

That being said, Ellis Island might not be everyone’s cup of tea. Structurally, it is slightly chaotic, with Szejnert going on occasional tangents about a random figure from Ellis Island who piqued her interest, choosing to delve deeper into their history with sometimes fascinating but occasionally boring results. She flits abruptly from one story to another, one theme to the next, which can make adjacent sections seem disjointed and disorganized. In fact, the whole book is best thought of as a loose conglomeration of thematically and chronologically connected anecdotes, stories, and histories. I quite liked this format; it felt cosy and conversational, and meant that I could pick the book up whenever, without feeling lost even after long absences.

Ellis Island is a very human book. It narrates the experiences of many very ordinary people, the tired and poor, huddled masses yearning to be free, the wretched refuse of many a teeming shore. Unlike most historical works, it assumes that their stories are worth being told, and then definitively proves that they are.

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