Welcome to the TLC Book Tour for Ellis Island
Ellie and John became friends when she was just eight years old. Two years older, John was raised by Maidy and Paud after the deaths of his own parents. Maidy and Paud were everything Ellie’s parents were not: Warm, welcoming, loving, and unconditionally supportive. Ellie’s parents were emotionally distant and did not socialize, her mother still bearing the stigma of the means by which her family survived the famine that crippled Ireland two generations earlier. Ellie’s father held an important position in the government, enabling the family to live comfortably and provide an excellent education for Ellie.
After being separated for a few years while Ellie attended school and John struck out to establish himself as a carpenter’s apprentice, they were reunited when John returned home. Their relationship was as magical as ever and, now that they were grown up, romance blossomed. But after they announced their hasty wedding to their families, Ellie’s parents disowned her. She set about making the house in which John’s parents had lived a home for the two of them. Before long, however, they were regularly joined by John’s associates — rebels fighting, like him, against the British government for Ireland’s independence. Ellie found herself regularly feeding and providing shelter to those rebels. When the fighting began in earnest, John joined the other men, but soon returned home, badly wounded. With no doctors available locally to properly care for John’s injuries and no money to transport him to Dublin for proper treatment, it looked as though John would never walk again.
But Ellie received a letter from an old school friend who had emigrated to America and was working as a maid for a wealthy New York socialite, Isobel, who was seeking additional household help. Isobel was willing to provide third-class passage to New York, and pay a salary of ten dollars per week! Ellie determined that in a matter of a few short months, she could send home enough money for John to have surgery and regain the ability to walk. Over John’s objections and promising to be gone no more than one year, Ellie set sail for America.
Ellie could never have envisioned what life in New York City in the 1920’s would be like — the way of life to which she would become accustomed, the standard of living, the opportunities. Ellie’s dreams are all coming true, except for one: She is separated from John. She pictures the wonderful life they could have together in America. They could even send for Maidy and Paud.
Will John join Ellie in America and continue their life together? Or will he refuse to leave his beloved Ireland, leaving Ellie to make the most difficult decision of her life: Whether to leave John in her past and continue the new life she has forged for herself in New York or give up everything she has worked for and her independence to return to a humble life in the Irish countryside with the man she has always loved.
Ellis Island is the first book in a trilogy from Irish author Kate Kerrigan. Kerrigan knows her subject matter: The daughter of Irish parents, she grew up in London where she worked for many years as a magazine journalist and editor. But she returned to Ireland in 1991 and lives in Killala, a small fishing village. In Kerrigan’s deft hands, the Irish landscape is vividly described, as are the harsh conditions in which Ellie and John were raised. Ellie’s status as a girl from a middle class family who wears clean, crisply starched pinafores to school stands in stark contrast to the abject poverty of her classmates, some of whom come to school with no shoes and filthy clothing that they have long outgrown. Ellie is aware of her circumstances and the fact that, even though decades have passed, the townspeople have not forgotten the means used by her ancestors to survive, leaving her shunned and without friends other than John.
Ellie is bright, inquisitive, and impetuous, desperate for the love that her parents withheld from her. She idealistically pushes John to marry her sooner than he planned — before he is able to establish himself as a carpenter and set up a home for them — and then dismayed when she realizes that her parents have abandoned her altogether and John’s familial home, which has stood empty for many years, is even more meager than that of Maidy and Paud. But Ellie is also resilient and determined.
John is a man of the earth, raised to love the land and all it can provide. He is also devoted to his country and his countryman — a point of contention between him and Ellie, who believes at times that John elevates his desire to see Ireland freed from British rule about her and their well-being. Devoted to the cause, John brings the two of them to near-starvation while feeding and providing for rebels who hide in their home. Ellie finally puts her foot down and insists that they return to Maidy and Paud’s farm, rather than stubbornly continue trying to eke out a living on their own. Ellie’s independent spirit and unwillingness to completely subjugate her own needs in favor of John’s goals are her defining characteristics.
From 1892 to 1954, Ellis Island was the inspection station through which all immigrants entering the United States in New York were required to pass. They were subjected to questioning and medical examinations; some even had their names changed for them by employees who could not spell or pronounce their actual names. If they passed the medical screening, they were permitted to enter the country. If they did not, they were returned to their homeland. Since 1990, Ellis Island has been a museum, standing in silent testament to the hopes and dreams of those who began a new life in America after passing through its Great Hall, traversing the worn marble stairway at the bottom of which was the literal door to their future. Like so many others, Ellie passes through Ellis Island.
In New York City, Ellie is exposed to people, places, and a way of life that she could never have imagined possible. She is disturbed by the fact that she has gone from being a girl from a middle class family with means to the servant to one of America’s idle rich. Still, she quickly adapts to a life filled with modern conveniences such as showers, fine linens, and the beautiful clothing Isobel gives to her maids when she purges her own overflowing closet. Ellie sees endless possibilities for wealth, success, and happiness in America and is eager for John to see the country the way she does. That is, of course, impossible, as he remains living in Ireland in the only circumstances he has ever experienced. Ellie also fails to grasp, until their separation drags on well past the originally agreed-upon one-year limit, the depth of John’s patriotism and devotion to his homeland.
In contrast, Ellie learns to live on her own — earning and managing her own money, caring for herself and her own apartment — and develops a rich social life. Although she loves John, she struggles with the idea of returning to the backward, crude way of life they shared in Ireland in a home with no electricity, indoor plumbing or even decent flooring. She does not know if she can sacrifice the independence she has earned and enjoyed, no matter how deep her love for John. Ultimately, Ellie has to assess the quality of all aspects of her life and make a decision about where, how, and with whom she will spend the rest of it. Hers is one of the most difficult imaginable choices and her decision-making process is handled with skill and empathy by Kerrigan, whose descriptions of 1920’s New York society are as rich and vibrant as her contrasting portrait of the beautiful Irish countryside and the squalor to which Ellie contemplates returning for the sake of her stubborn husband.
Ellis Island is a story about whether or not love can endure and overcome hardships and temptations. It is also the story of one woman who desires to use her intellect and abilities in meaningful ways during a time when American women enjoyed freedoms, choices, and luxuries that set them apart from women in much of the rest of the world. It is a testament to the resilient spirit not only of America and the dreams upon which it was built, but the impact of that spirit upon all who experienced life in the heady, exciting days of 1920’s New York, especially upon one Irish woman named Ellie who loved her husband, John, with a depth, richness, and purity that enabled her to make a difficult decision and, eventually, be at peace with and happy about her choice. I highly recommend Ellis Island to any reader who enjoys historically-based fiction and am anxious to read the sequels.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one copy of Ellis Island free of charge from the author in conjunction with the TLC Book Tours review and virtual book tour program. I was not required to write a positive review in exchange for receipt of the book; rather, the opinions expressed in this review are my own. This disclosure complies with 16 Code of Federal Regulations, Part 255, “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
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One lucky reader, selected at random, will receive a copy of Ellis Island, generously provided by the author.
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