The Last Days of Ellis Island by Gaëlle Josse (Translated by Natasha Lehrer)

Thank you to Anne at Random Things Tours for the invitation to join the blog tour for this book. Thank you to World Editions for a copy of the book, my thoughts are my own and not influenced by the gift.

Synopsis:

Winner of the European Union Prize for Literature

New York, November 3, 1954. In a few days, the immigration inspection station on Ellis Island will close its doors forever. John Mitchell, an officer of the Bureau of Immigration, is the guardian and last resident of the island. As Mitchell looks back over forty-five years as gatekeeper to America and its promise of a better life, he recalls his brief marriage to beloved wife Liz, and is haunted by memories of a transgression involving Nella, an immigrant from Sardinia. Told in a series of poignant diary entries, this is a story of responsibility, love, fidelity, and remorse.

My thoughts:

This is a book of highs and lows, both for Ellis Island and for John Mitchell, who is packing up his personal possessions and leaving the island for the last time. This books blends fiction and nonfiction seamlessly.

In many books, I’ve read about how ships full of immigrants would arrive at Ellis Island, hoping to be allowed to proceed into America to make new, brighter lives and to escape poverty, war and persecution back in Europe.

This book brings this to life from the other side of the story, how the United States processed the applications. The section of the book detailing how the immigrants are first observed, then sorted and questioned was written in a way that really brought the images to life. Alongside the general memories of Ellis Island, John Mitchell tells how he fell in love with his wife and why he feels guilty about how he dealt with Nella and her brother, who were fleeing Sardinia to seek safety.

This is a relatively short book for a historical fiction novel with over 45 years of events crammed into the story, as New York and the rest of the world undergo major changes. Some parts are lovely, such as when John falls in love with Liz, but there are many more sad moments than happy memories. I enjoyed reading this book and would love to visit Ellis Island one day, as my teenage boy did last year with his sixth form. A thought provoking story about a gateway to new beginnings.

Author Bio:

Gaëlle Josse holds degrees in law, journalism, and clinical psychology. Formerly a poet, she published her first novel, Les Heures silencieuses (‘The Quiet Hours’), in 2011. Josse went on to win several awards, including the Alain Fournier Award in 2013 for Nos vies désaccordées (‘Our Out-Of-Tune Lives’). After spending a few years in New Caledonia, she returned to Paris, where she now works and lives. Josse received the European Union Prize for Literature for The Last Days of Ellis Island, along with the Grand Livre du Mois Literary Prize.

Natasha Lehrer won a Rockower Award for Journalism in 2016, and in 2017 was awarded the Scott Moncrieff Translation Prize for her translation of Suite for Barbara Loden by Nathalie Léger.

“Combining real and fictional events, Gaëlle Josse has written a text as visceral as it is melancholy and vibrant.” ―Livres Hebdo