At Night All Blood is Black, by David Diop

Once a certain amount of time has passed and once we’ve heard a story the same way enough times, history can kind of fossilize in our collective memories. Historical fiction can bring those old stories to life for us, but it takes a book like David Diop’s emotionally wrenching At Night All Blood is Black (faithfully translated by Anna Moschovakis) to make use revise what we thought we knew and push the fossils into new shapes. In this brief novel, Diop puts us into the fracturing mind of Alfa Ndiaye, one of 200,000 men who fought for France as a Senegalese Tirailleur.

Alfa Ndiaye is a legend among his regiment. After the dead of his more-than-a-brother, Mademba Diop, Alfa has been lingering in no man’s land to ambush German soldiers. When he catches one, he kills them and takes their rifles and right hands. Alfa is hailed as a particularly gutsy hero for, he tells us, the first three hands. When he brings back the fourth, his captain and the rest of the regiment start to turn on him. He might be a legend to them, but he becomes a terrifying one that no one knows what to do with.

The above (and a bit more in the form of flashbacks that show us Alfa and Mademba’s childhoods and adolescence) are the barebones plot of At Night All Blood is Black, but that’s not all that happens. The plot is really a support for Alfa’s thoughts as he reflects on his friend’s death and his own role in it, about what it means to fight for the country that’s colonizing his own, what feels like to be seen as a savage by so-called civilized people, and what true bravery really is. This is not an easy book to read, especially once Alfa’s sense of self—and even his sense of embodiment—starts to disintegrate after another comrade dies and he brings back an eighth hand.

Alfa and his story push us to think about the African experience of World War I, an experience we might not have known even existed. It’s strange to be reminded that World War I involved soldiers pulled in from Europe’s colonies in Africa and Asia (that I know of). I’ve read several novels that show how bewildering it was for the average Briton, German, or Frenchman being whisked into a brutal war over national promises. How strange and horrifying it might have been for a man to be pulled into a war because Great Britain or Germany or France marched into his country decades or centuries earlier and put their flags down everywhere.

Five soldiers from the 43rd Tirailleurs battalion, c. 1914-1918 (Image via Wikicommons)

The Mad Women’s Ball, by Victoria Mas

Trigger warning for rape.

In the nineteenth century, a woman could be diagnosed with hysteria for an array of symptoms that range from hallucinations, epilepsy, and depression to irritability, menstrual pain, or doing too much/too little of something that bothered the men in her life. Hysteria could get a woman locked away for life in the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and other places until doctors were able to differentiate illness and mental disorders from normal behavior. This terrifies me and fascinates me, so a book like Victoria Mas’s The Mad Women’s Ball (smoothly translated by Frank Wynne) is my equivalent of watching a horror movie. I get chills. I wonder what I would do. Then I recommend it to other people so that I can spread the feeling around.

Historically, Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot studied women with hysteria and other illnesses (or not) at the notorious Paris hospital, the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital. His practice involved “lectures,” during which patients would be hypnotized so that they would perform muscle contractures, paralysis, and other physical symptoms of their “illness.” I’m using a lot of danger quotes here because Charcot’s actions and patient diagnoses were perfectly acceptable at the time. Now, in the twenty-first century, we know a lot more about mental illness, conversion disorders, human behavior, etc. Also, we have medical ethics that would prevent Charcot’s lectures/performances. Charcot is a tertiary character in The Mad Women’s Ball. Two of the main characters, however, share names with one of Charcot’s most famous patients, Louise Augustine Gleizes.

Geneviève Gleizes is the head nurse of one of the wards at Salpêtrière. She maintains order on the ward with a firmness that masks a surprising brittleness. At first, Geneviève is a rock, but it isn’t long before we start to see that she’s suppressing grief for her deceased sister. Then there’s Louise, Charcot’s patient du jour, who performs at his lectures in an effort to become famous. Sort of. Lastly, we meet Eugénie. I’m not sure if she’s based on a historical figure. I wouldn’t be surprised if Eugénie, who sees ghosts, was based on one of the many women who had successful careers contacting the other side during the height of the Spiritualist craze. Eugénie and Geneviève immediately put each other’s backs up. Geneviève is offended when Eugénie claims to see and hear Geneviève’s sister. Eugénie just wants to get out of the Salpêtrière and Geneviève represents everything that’s holding her prisoner.

The Mad Women’s Ball rushes by. It plays out over the weeks before the eponymous event, where the wealthy of Paris are invited into Salpêtrière to see the patients dressed up in costumes for their entertainment. The whirlwind plot makes it seem like everything is spiraling out of control just that much faster as the characters lose their grip on their equilibrium. This makes the book sound a lot more grim than I think it is because, while things are falling apart, all three of the primary characters are learning. Louise learns to shed her naiveté. Eugénie learns what it takes to be free. And Geneviève learns to let go of “sanity” so that she can finally feel her emotions. This book is a master class in character development and plotting. And it definitely made me feel the frisson of terror I was expecting at the same time that I marveled at the story.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Une leçon clinique à la Salpêtrière, by Pierre Aristide André Brouillet, 1887. Charcot (the grey-haired man just right of center) is shown with his patient, Marie “Blanche” Wittman, and some of the leading lights of European medicine at the end of the nineteenth century. (Image via Wikipedia)

The Captain’s Daughter: Essential Stories, by Alexander Pushkin

Why did no one tell me Alexander Pushkin was funny? Before I read this collection, The Captain’s Daughter: Essential Stories (solidly translated by Anthony Briggs), my only knowledge of Pushkin was that he wrote the epic tragic poem Eugene Onegin and that he died at a young age in a duel. The Captain’s Daughter revealed to me that Pushkin also had a fine eye for satire. All three of the stories in this collection—”The Captain’s Daughter,” “The Queen of Spades,” and “The Postmaster”—all have moments of tragedy or near-tragedy, but it’s all balanced with light touches of absurdity and satire.

“The Captain’s Daughter” is the longest story in the collection. Its plot is so compressed that it could easily have been turned into a picaresque novel. This novella opens with some Tristram Shandy-like phrases: “Mama was still pregnant with me when I was enrolled as a sergeant in the Semyonovsky Regiment,” (ARC Kindle edition). Pyotr Andreyvich’s father is very disappointed with his spoiled son and has him transferred from his St. Petersburg regiment to one out in the wild east of Russia to toughen him up. The plan works a little bit better intended when Yamelyan Pugachov launches his rebellion against Catherine the Great. Pyotr has a knack for being kind to people who later feel beholden to him, including Pugachov. This bare summary doesn’t capture Pytor’s madcap adventures on the front. Nor does it capture Pushkin’s pointed digs at pompous officers who don’t know how to fight a war, at weasel-y officers who switch sides at the drop of a hat, and aristocrats who spend money like water. I really enjoyed this satirical slice-of-life look at life where high society crosses with serfs and rebels.

The next two stories are shorter, but also skewer high society and the ways that the high abuse the low. In “The Queen of Spades,” we see into the world of wild gambling, in which aristocrats gamble away estates or win millions of rubles at the turn of a card. The Queen of Spades is an old countess who claims to have a secret to always win. Unfortunately, it’s a secret that ultimately causes her death when another aristocrat with a lot of debt hounds her to give it up. The last story, “The Postmaster,” begins with a lament to the ways that couriers and travelers abuse the postmaster for never having horses ready, not having comfortable enough waiting places, and so on. But the narrator urges us to try and put ourselves in the postmaster’s shoes before launching into the most tragic tale of the three. In this story, the postmaster’s kind, lovely daughter is kidnapped by an aristocrat. In the end, she chooses a life of luxury instead of coming home to her poor, harried father.

I enjoyed reading this collection and would definitely recommend it, not just to fans of Russian literature, but to anyone who likes stories that can transport them to an era. Pushkin very much captures his time and place, and he does it with an unexpected sense of humor. This is one of the best republished classics I’ve read yet.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

Little Brother, by Ibrahima Balde

Little Brother, by Ibrahima Balde (co-written with Amets Arzallus Antia and solidly translated by Timberlake Wertenbaker) is an account of the author’s epic journey across North Africa to find his younger brother. Balde is the oldest son in his family which, after his father suddenly dies when Balde was a young teenager, makes him the primary breadwinner for his mother, two sisters, and little brother. In brief chapters, Balde tells us how he tried to support his family and then, when that little brother tries to make it to Europe, how Balde went after that brother to try and bring him back home.

Balde is not an ambitious person. He is relatively content to find work as a trucker’s apprentice with the long haulers who crisscross Guinea (where Balde is from), Liberia, and Sierra Leone. But when he gets a call that his brother has gone north in an attempt to get to Europe to make a living for the family, Balde takes it upon himself to try and follow. This leaves Balde’s mother and two sisters alone at their farm in the Guinean countryside, but what else can Balde do? He pulls together as much money as he can and follows his brother’s trail.

I was astounded to read about Balde’s journey. More than once, Balde has to walk for miles in the Sahara between towns. And it’s not just the elements that might kill Balde. At one point, Balde is captured by a group of Tuareg who enslave him. After that, Balde is on the run from them as well as trying to keep himself alive in the desert. There are a few kind people in the desert who help Balde and other migrants along the way, but there are so many migrants and refugees that they can only do so much. Between the kind ones and the slavers, there are those who will help migrants and refugees get further north…for a price. When he meets a new person, Balde is gambling on whether or not that new person wants to help him, bilk him, or enslave him.

Balde packs so much into the very short chapters of Little Brother. In those brief paragraphs, Balde shows us his love for his family, his determination, and his phenomenal inner strength. Balde does an impressive amount with remarkably few words, words that put us on Balde’s shoulder as he walks all those miles to look for his little brother. Readers who love reading inspirational stories or tales of hardship will enjoy this one.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

A Tuareg man in the Algerian desert (Image via Wikicommons)

Will, by Jeroen Olyslaegers

Jeroen Olyslaeger’s Will presents a complicated portrait of a man who was caught between the Belgian Resistance and pro-fascist Belgians during World War II. His refusal to take sides meant that everyone thought he was on their team. In the long shadow of the war, everyone looks at Wilfred Wils askance. When people know you won’t take a stand, they won’t stand with you. Wilfred tells his story to his great-grandson (with us watching over his shoulder) and, while he never justifies his actions, he is brutally honest for perhaps the first time in his long life.

Wilfred, when we meet him, is a poet of very little renown. Back then, he was a policeman. His very average grades in school kept him out of university and had zero prospects. His French tutor, Meanbeard, managed to wrangle Wilfred a job with the Antwerp police (patrol as he’s definitely not detective material). After the Germans invade Belgium, Wilfred learns why his tutor got him a job. Meanbeard thinks that Wilfred shares his sympathies for the Nazis. It’s a mistake that a lot of other people will make. You see, the only person Wilfred really cares about is himself. He has no deep principles he’s willing to die for. I’m not even sure he would put his neck out all that far for the people he calls his best friends. Because of this, Will is one of the strangest World War II books I’ve ever read. Most stories in the genre are all about heroes and villains. There are villains in Will, but I’m hard-pressed to identify any heroes.

Belgian tank on fire during the Battle of Antwerp, May 19, 1940 (Image via Wikicommons)

So, as elderly Wilfred wanders the streets of Antwerp and the apartment he shares with his equally elderly wife, we learn all of his secrets. We see Wilfred accompany Gestapo agents and other Belgian police as the Gestapo rounds up the city’s Jewish citizens. We see Wilfred try to drink his pints while members of the Flemish Legion trash anti-Nazi bars. We also see Wilfred attempt to stay out of everyone’s business as the stake rise around him. Meanbeard and the pro-fascists want Wilfred to spy on his friends in the resistance. His friends in the resistance want Wilfred to spy on the Nazis and the pro-fascists. It’s an impossible position.

Usually, I would be all over the ethical dilemmas of a book like this. Instead, I was more struck by the psychological aspects of Will. I was surprised by all the efforts to try and get Wilfred to turn spy. It was as though none of these people really knew Wilfred. Wilfred appears to have kept his own feelings and thoughts too close to the vest that all anyone else would see was a reflection of their own. Because he never directly contradicts anyone, Wilfred can get away with being cynical about everything and no one really takes him seriously. I was also fascinated by the hints in the latter parts of the book that, even though he believes that he’s finally coming clean about everything, Wilfred might not be remembering events clearly.

Will is not an easy book to read. I had to take some ABBA breaks when things got too heavy for me. But in retrospect, I’m glad I took a chance on Wilfred’s story. Because Olyslaeger’s protagonist is so deeply in the grey between black and white, Will present an opportunity to think more carefully about all of the millions of people who got caught between the Allies and the Axis while they were trying to figure out who they wanted to be and what they wanted to do in their lives. The only quibble I have about this book is the occasionally clunky word choice by the translator, David Colmer. Colmer is best when he doesn’t try to do colloquial.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

The Guardian of Amsterdam Street, by Sergio Schmucler

Galo’s house at one end of Amsterdam Street, Mexico City, is the result of a series of mistakes. First, the oval street was supposed to be a round track. Then a house was promised in such a position it messes up the layout of the street. More mistakes cause that house to become the home of a carpenter in the middle of a well-to-do area. This series of chance occurrences sets the tone for The Guardian of Amsterdam Street, by Sergio Schmucler and smoothly translated by Jessica Sayer. Galo grows up in that house believing that he must guard it and the memories of its inhabitants so that the world can keep spinning on.

Galo—who always seems like a child to me even though this book covers decades—is the kind of character I can’t help but try to diagnose. His worldview has a lot of the hallmarks of different kinds of mental illness. Does he have obsessive compulsive disorder? Is he a touch schizophrenic? The actual mental illness might be important, but it drives the small plot of The Guardian of Amsterdam Street. Just like a series of mistakes led to Galo’s family living in the house on Amsterdam Street, a series of tragedies lead Galo to believe that he must save cut hair to preserve memories and nurture a bougainvillea tree planted by his mother. He also never leaves the house. If he does, the whole delicate operation will collapse. His mother worries about him, but everyone is content to leave Galo alone. They explain him to others by saying that his mind isn’t right.

After Galo’s father leaves just before the outbreak of World War II (caused by a surprising act of violence by his mother), Galo’s mother Guadalupe rents out two rooms to a series of boarders: Jewish refugees, a Republican Spanish hairdresser, and a certain Argentinian revolutionary, among others. Galo strikes up conversations with the boarders about life, disappointment, and making homes in new places. He also quietly and secretively going about his tasks while the world goes by on Amsterdam Street. Small references to outside events let us know just how much time passes Galo by: the death of Francisco Franco, names of Mexican presidents, different waves of refugees and immigrants speaking different languages and different dialects of Spanish. So even though Galo will not go outside, his life is fairly cosmopolitan.

Because no one really pushes Galo out the front door (not after the first couple of times), I was able to set aside judgment (if not my mental armchair psychologist). I knew Galo’s behavior isn’t normal, but what did it hurt to have Galo do what he thought was necessary to keep the world and time rolling along. Amsterdam—and by extension the world—has room for everyone, including eccentrics who don’t hurt anyone. That said, Galo does come to a realization at the end of The Guardian of Amsterdam Street. Most of the book asks what’s worth preserving; the end asks, at what point do we have to let go of preserving the past so that we can move in new directions.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

The Book Smuggler, by Omaima al-Khamis

Compared to the world of Mazid ibn Abdullah al-Hanafi, I live in a paradise. Whenever I have a question, I have access to an incalculable amount of information. I can call up Google, Wikipedia, and the catalogs and databases of two libraries at any time. Mazid, however, has to travel across deserts, mountains, and seas to get to libraries that may or may not have copies of books that can answer his questions. He also has to contend with growing sectarian violence, anti-intellectualism, and fracturing caliphates on his way to those libraries. Omaima al-Khamis takes us to the second decade of the eleventh century and drops us onto a caravan route between Baghdad and Jerusalem in The Book Smuggler, translated with a lovely medieval flavor by Sarah Enany.

All Mazid has ever wanted was to read books and learn. Once he is old enough, he leaves the Arabian desert and travels to Baghdad. Unfortunately for Mazid, Baghdad is no longer the shining city of learning that hosted the House of Wisdom. There are some remnants. Mazid’s abilities as a scribe and his love of learning help him find those remnants, but it isn’t long before increasing fundamentalist violence sends Mazid out into the world again—this time with a precious cargo of books full of translated Greek philosophy and science.

The Book Smuggler chronicles Mazid’s travels across the Abbasid, Fatimid, and Córdoban caliphates, from Baghdad to Jerusalem to Cairo and finally to Córdoba. (At the time, Córdoba was believed to be a haven for science, literature, and the arts). It’s a journey that takes Mazid years to complete as he moseys his way across the Islamic world. I’m not terribly familiar with medieval Islamic writing, but al-Khamis (via Enany’s translation) sounds medieval to me. Mazid interrupts his narration with side stories and the text wanders as much as he does. He also has a habit of falling instantly in love with the women he encounters. He spouts poetry at the drop of a hat and blames any bad health on imbalanced humors. The medieval flavoring takes some getting used to. Once I was in, I was hooked.

Mazid’s physical journey is mirrored by his intellectual journey, which I found almost as interesting. (I love a book that can transport me from my couch in the twenty-first century to a camel in the eleventh.) When we first meet young Mazid, he is in awe of the people and places of Baghdad. It is the city he always dreamed of as a child at his grandfather’s knee. He has complete faith in the Qu’ran and Mohammed. Although he remains a faithful Muslim, he starts to have serious questions about the imams who teach in the mosques and their followers who “police” the streets. The philosophy he reads add to his questions.

It’s never easy to be a questioner, but Mazid has a mission to guide him. Before he leaves Baghdad, he is inducted into a society called the Voyagers. These men shepherd books—especially translations of the ancient Greeks and radical thinkers from around the Islamic world—from city to city. They sell the books to intellectuals who share their questioning values, but mostly they want to make sure that these books will be safe from anti-intellectuals who want to burn anything that might make them question what they’ve been taught.

The Book Smuggler was an amazing read. It was the closest I’ve ever come to time traveling I’ve ever had while reading.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

Tabula Rogeriana, by Muhammad al-Idrisi, c. 1154 CE (Image via Wikicommons, note that the map is oriented with Africa and the Arabian Peninsula at the top of the page)

The Bone Fire, by György Dragomán

There’s a lot I’m not sure about when it comes to The Bone Fire, by György Dragomán (translated by Paul Olchvary). I’m not entirely sure where or when it’s set. There are mentions of a recently assassinated dictator and a secret police force called the Securitate that had me thinking this story was set in Romania in the early 1990s, but I can’t confirm this. There are frequent mentions of folk magic, but some of the things the main character and her grandmother do can mostly be explained away by coincidence or luck. It even took me a while to figure out what the main character’s name even was (Emma). While this book might be short on the usual details, it is long on episodes in Emma’s strange life as an orphan and (possible) witch’s apprentice.

We first meet Emma on the day, at the orphanage, when she is surprised to learn that she has a living grandmother. Emma had believed that she had no family after her parents died and it takes Grandmother some work to convince Emma of their relationship. Strange things start to happen immediately after they leave the orphanage. Grandmother’s purse seems to be some kind of magical guard dog and promises are made with fresh blood. While the odd things keep happening, Emma also has to settle into a new life in the city, at a school where everyone believes that her recently deceased grandfather was an informer.

I think the events of The Bone Fire take place over about a year, from shortly after the old regime was overthrown, through a winter, and into what seems to be a new revolution against kleptocrats who took over from the old guard. The meandering plot bounces between Emma’s magical lessons with her grandmother, to teenage milestones like getting one’s period and buying a first bikini, to increasing violent events around the city. It’s a lot to absorb. To be honest, I’m surprised that this book clocks in at under 400 pages because it felt like a lot more.

Readers who are looking for a more traditional fantasy novel, where a chosen one defeats a big evil, should look elsewhere. The Bone Fires actually reminded me more of Lev Grossman’s Magicians Trilogy (although it doesn’t have anything like Fillory) because it’s the story of a girl with magical abilities (maybe) who has to get along in an ordinary world. It’s a deep character dive. It’s also a long look at survivors’ guilt, betrayal, secrets, and compromise. And, running through the whole thing, is the hope that potions and rituals can influence the mundane, making life just a little bit wilder.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

In Memory of Memory, by Maria Stepanova

When my dad passed away in 2019, my sister, my mother, and I spent hours going through family photographs. We scanned a lot of them to share online with relatives. Others—the best ones, the ones that really captured who my dad was—were put on a memory board for the memorial service. The year before, in 2018, when my last surviving grandparent died, my mother and I traveled to Wisconsin to do something similar with the Latsch family photos. Both times, I quizzed my mother endlessly about who all these people were, what they were doing, what else she remembered about them. Sometimes she could answer and I got great stories about how my uncle annoyed my mother by playing “Cat Scratch Fever” on a loop or about driving the family Cadillac out onto the frozen lake or how my parents managed to meet each other in Rome, of all places. I’m still saddened by the loss of all the stories that went with my dad and my grandmother that we never managed to record. Maria Stepanova has some of the same feelings and questions as she goes through her sprawling family’s archive and belongings, recounted in In Memory of Memory (solidly translated by Sasha Dugdale), but Stepanova is far more intellectual than I’ve been in my thinking about family memories and trying to recreate lost pasts.

I think I would have appreciated In Memory of Memory a lot more if I had been better able to follow Stepanova’s jumble of thoughts. Like her aunt’s apartment in Moscow, everything reminds Stepanova of something else. Thinking about a family meal sends her off to think about Proust, which sends her to thinking about her male forbears’ experiences during World War II. Thinking about faded photographs leads Stepanova to think about high photographic art, which turns into a Salvador Dalí anecdote. There are many chapters that I just skimmed because I couldn’t make myself interested in meandering streams of consciousness about how we memorialize the dead or who owns the past.

The parts of this book that I enjoyed best are the parts where Stepanova actually talks about her family and when she shares what she’s learned about the past to recreate their milieux. Although she claims that her family is very uninteresting, I would rebut that my Latsch relatives are far more boring because they weren’t at least adjacent to big events in history the way the Stepanova’s ancestors were. Her family might not have experienced the lowest lows or highest highs of twentieth century Russian and Soviet history, but at least she had a great-grandmother who was arrested for distributing socialist leaflets in the first Bolshevik rebellions and a great-great-grandfather who lost his factory to the Communists only to have his name later given to a de-Soviet-ified street in Odessa. My ancestors from Germany sat out the Civil War in Canada, then came down to Wisconsin to farm. The episodes Stepanova relates and the letters she shares in In Memory of Memory are among the most detailed, most real expressions of actual life in the Soviet Union that I’ve ever read, even if they are fragmentary.

Readers who can appreciate Stepanova’s references to and musings about literature and art are probably the mostly likely to enjoy all of this book. Readers who want a big family history should look elsewhere for a less frustrating, more focused read. I was definitely in the latter group and, although I hate to fault a book for not being what I wanted it to be, I really wish that Stepanova would have realized that her prose would have been more effective by letting her actual journey through the family archive and her family tell their story. By intellectualizing so much, any subtext that I might have worked out for myself was obliterated by all the thousands of things Stepanova wanted to think about instead.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The Last Days of Ellis Island, by Gaëlle Josse

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.

Ellis Island, 1905 (Image via Wikicommons)

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.