Not indeed that I had been planning to do anything in particular — but nonetheless, I realized how much I had been enjoying the anonymity that New York afforded me. While I had been living my life free from the microscopic study of curious neighbors since I left Ireland, I only became aware of my freedom in that moment. (from Ellis Island, page 249)
Set in the 1920s, Ellis Island is the story of Ellie Hogan, a young woman who emigrates to New York City to escape the poverty of rural Ireland and work as a maid for a socialite in the hopes of earning enough money to pay for the surgery that will enable her husband to walk again. Ellie has loved John Hogan since they were children, and when his involvement in the Irish Republican Army leaves him unable to work, she doesn’t think twice about taking matters into her own hands and taking up an old friend’s offer to bring her to America.
Ellie doesn’t want to be away from home for more than a year, just long enough to get her and John set for the future, but New York City opens up a whole new world for her. The city offers freedom from her cold and disapproving parents, freedom from poverty, and an independence she could never know back home as a farmer’s wife. She is introduced to modern conveniences like electricity, toasters, and warm showers. She observes and then later enjoys the excesses of the wealthy and develops a love and appreciation for fine clothes, cosmetics, linens, and other material things.
When an affluent young man shows an interest in her, she begins to realize how far she has come. But when circumstances send her back to Ireland (and John), she realizes how much she has changed and must choose between love and a world full of possibilities. Kate Kerrigan has created a believable heroine in Ellie.
She did an admirable thing, a selfless thing, in leaving behind everything she knew and everyone she loved to take care of her husband. And one can understand how easy it might be to then become a bit selfish, having been given a taste of freedom and modernity. However, as the story progressed, I grew tired of Ellie’s whining. She had been luckier than many immigrants, and even though she was a hard worker, luck did play a role in her success overseas. It was exasperating to see her place such a high value on material things, but Kerrigan did such a good job evolving Ellie’s character over the course of the book, that I couldn’t help but root for her even when I wanted to shake some sense into her.
Kerrigan also gives readers a good idea of what New York City and Ireland were like in the 1920s — New York City in a period of prosperity, and Ireland recovering from its War of Independence. Given the way America and Ireland pulled so violently at Ellie, it’s not surprising they were more like characters than just settings. Kerrigan made the people Ellie encountered in both countries seem real — from Isobel, the needy socialite, to Maidy and Paud, John’s aunt and uncle who adopted him when he was a child and basically adopted Ellie, too. Even using the first-person narrative, Kerrigan was able to portray a cast of well-developed characters and rich landscapes.
Ellis Island is about one young woman’s immigrant experience and a testament to the American Dream, though I’m not sure the title is a good fit given that Ellis Island itself barely factors into the story. Kerrigan paints a picture of New York City as a true melting pot and a land of plenty but also shows how hard it can be to leave home — even when a better life might be had elsewhere. Ellis Island calls on readers to think about their priorities in life, whether where we come from makes us who we are, whether love really is all you need, and how we define and balance freedom, success, and home. Ellis Island is the first book in a trilogy. Stay tuned for my review of the second book, City of Hope.
Disclosure: I received Ellis Island from Harper for review.
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