The Last days of Ellis Island by Gaëlle Josse

The Last days of Ellis Island by Gaëlle Josse

French Fiction

Original title – Le dernier gardien d’Ellis Island

Translator – Natasha Leher

Source – review copy

I said I would have a second European literature prize this time we are in France with the French poet  Gaëlle Josse she started as a poet after studying Law, journalism, and psychology. She now works as a website editor. She has set a prize for young writers as well. Then about ten years ago started writing novels she won prizes with her first three novels. Then got this here fourth novel on the European literature prize list. This book started with the writer visiting the museum of immigration which is on the site of Ellis Island where she saw the history and came up with using some of the people’s stories she read whilst at the Museum.

Liz was my guiding light. Nothing triumphant or blinding like the light that is brandished for all eternity by Lady Liberty. My poor Liz, the very idea would have made me smile. No, she was mellow, constant, serene. We were married only a few years. Too little time, but is the intensity of an experience measured by its duration? The interminable pace of my life today has no significance for me anymore. I get up, work, go to bed and wrangle with the memories I have tried to build walls to keep out. I barely manage, and anyway it will all come to an endone day or another ?

Liz haunts him through out the book.

The book has John Mitchell as the main character in the novel. He has worked over 45 years as an officer of the Bureau of Immigration as the last gatekeeper of Ellis Island he has stayed on the island doing his job as in 1954 the Island is due to close he has carried on working there til the end even thou his colleagues had moved on and the stream of people was a trickle now. Whilst he works we get to look into the mind of John as he recalls the events and people that had passed through Ellis Island over his time there from when it was used a lot when there was a number of Steerage Passengers the sort of lower-class citizens in search of a better life or those needing to escape Europe. This sees us learn of his short marriage to Liz who passed away of Typhus from someone that arrived in the US. but he had a short foray with a Sardina girl Nella and even though it was thirty years earlier it seems to have affected him all the way through it. Memories of those he met during his time are told in brief from A couple from Hungary with communist sympathies elsewhere there is Italian anarchist maybe a warning of the future when McCarthy and even in the 20s the red scare and the tightening of the immigration laws in the late 1920’s which slowed the people through Ellis Island. A look into the last days of somewhere that was the start for so many dreams and Nightmares of what could be the American dream.

From my vantage point on Ellis Island, I observed the continuing existence pof America. The city so neqar, so far way. For me, the island had become an outpost, a watchtower or rampart, with me standing sentinl against invasion.

The activity of the station was in inexorable decline. Today I am the captain of a phantom ship that has been abandoned to its ghosts. Like the ghost of Nella, who arrived on board the cursed Cincinati on April 23, 1923, and still clamors for justice today.

His other ghost Nella arrived in the hieght of the arrivals on the Island.

 

I enjoyed this it is a book of memories but also felt as thou it caught the mood in some ways Ellis Island saw so many lives come through it over the years and we get a lot of brief glimpses here and there is a touch of melancholy over the tales and John himself the one event whilst he was married haunted him a ghost of a woman from Sardina he fell for and a wife that died too early. As we see him over the last eight days of the Island as we read his personal journal. Those years after Liz’s death John was there his job was his life and although we only see a few lives here it is the ones that touched him the most during his time on the island. As the Pogues said in there song pogues thousand are sailing” The island is silent now and but the ghost still haunt the waves and the torch lights up a famished man ” A tale of one man life as the gatekeeper of the US during the first half of the 20th century caught here.

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: That was the month that was January 2021 | Winstonsdad's Blog

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