Ellis Island is a big part of the American story. This small island, within view of Liberty Island where Lady Liberty lifts her “lamp beside the golden door,” was where millions of European, African, Asian, and Caribbean immigrants were processed before being allowed to travel to the American mainland—or sent back to their countries of origin. Some of that story is told in Gaëlle Josse’s The Last Days of Ellis Island (and perfectly translated by Natasha Lehrer). But this is not a history of Ellis Island. Instead, it’s a narrative of one Mr. Mitchell’s life at the island from when he was taken on by the US government to the closure of the island as an immigration processing point. Mr. Mitchell has a lot to regret.
Mitchell is initially a nameless government official, wandering the halls and stairways of the mostly shuttered processing center. He takes pride in being the only person who knows the place well enough to not get lost. As he walks, he remembers seeing thousands of people from all over the world, shuffling their way through endless lines on their way to becoming (hopefully) Americans. Some won’t make it. Mitchell recalls how doctors would put letters on the backs of unlucky would-be immigrants who may have infectious diseases or mental illnesses; these people won’t be allowed to go on to New York. He also thinks about his wife, a nurse who sadly died at the end of an epidemic on the island.
I was enjoying my walkabout Ellis Island with Mitchel until he started to remember another woman. Nella is an Italian immigrant who has the misfortune to be the first woman to catch Mitchell’s eye after his wife’s death. Although Mitchell believed himself to be a virtuous, upright man, his lust for Nella leads him to start breaking rules and abusing his small bit of power. By the end of The Last Days of Ellis Island, I was thoroughly disgusted by Mitchell—which made the surprise ending that much better.
The Last Days of Ellis Island is not a story about the legend of Ellis Island. It has hints of that legend in the form of Mitchell’s ghostly recollections of the immigrants he and his colleagues processed all those years ago. Instead, I see this book as more of a small slice of what can happen in a place where one group of people has too much power over another, in the form of one little man who took advantage of that power without any thought for the consequences.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.