One of my cousins chose Ellis Island by Kate Kerrigan as the most recent selection for our online family book group. Everyone in the group enjoyed this immigration story of a young Irish woman in the early part of the 20th century, stuck between the new, exciting world of New York City and the family and husband she left behind in her home country.
Ellie fell in love with John when she was just eight years old and he was ten. They both lived in a small rural town in Ireland, attending the local public school, though John’s family lived on a small farm in the countryside, and Ellie’s lived in town. Until that point, Ellie’s life had been a bit sedate and somber, as the only child of two rather severe parents. John introduced her to running through fields and climbing trees, and John’s affectionate, loving mother and father welcomed her into their home and their hearts. Ellie went away to a convent school, while John stayed at the local public high school and eventually became involved in the Irish civil war, helping the local rebels in seeking independence from Britain.
Ellie and John married, as expected, but their lives weren’t easy. They were quite poor and mired in the revolution. Eventually, things came to a head when money was urgently needed. Ellie, along with many other young Irish women, headed for America, where an old school friend had a well-paying job waiting for her as a personal maid to a wealthy woman. Ellie’s plan was to work for a year, send as much of her income back to Ireland as she could, and then return home to John.
Once in New York, though, Ellie gradually grew to love her new life, filled with fashionable clothes, independence, relative wealth, and new friends. She and her friends worked together, went out to clubs, danced, and generally enjoyed the exciting life that was New York in the 1920’s. When a wealthy suitor expresses his love for Ellie, while John is urging her to come back home to their little house in the country, Ellie finds herself torn between the two worlds.
All of us enjoyed this immigrant story and felt Ellie’s pain in having to make this difficult decision. Some of us rooted for her to decide one way or the other, but all of us wondered what we would do in the same situation. The author offered to answer our questions through Twitter and said that, with Ellie, she was trying to show the “contrast between the life of her dreams (freedom) and life of her identity (Ireland).” Many of us were thrilled to hear that Ellis Island was not the only book of Ellie’s adventures – her story continues in the novels City of Hope and Land of Dreams.
Kerrigan did a wonderful job of describing both of Ellie’s worlds eloquently: her poor country house with her beloved John and the excitement and fun of New York in the 20’s for a young immigrant discovering the land of opportunity. Ellie and John feel real, and so does Ellie’s uncertainty over which life to choose. As difficult as that choice seems, Kerrigan manages to bring the book to a satisfying conclusion. I enjoyed the novel and the interactions with Kerrigan and look forward to reading more from her.
368 pages, William Morrow paperbacks