Books

Ellis Island – Kate Kerrigan

Ellie and John were childhood friends, sweethearts, lovers and eventually man and wife. They were destined to be together, even though Ellie’s parents disapproved of John. Disapproved of his upbringing his religion and his whole manner, and when Ellie is sent to boarding school and John goes to Dublin to work as a carpenter’s apprentice there is hope that any childhood infatuations are forgotten.

But their love is much stronger. It is strong enough to survive the famine and poverty of Ireland in the early twentieth century. It can even survive John’s fight in the war of independence but will it survive his injury? Ellie decided that as money is the only way to help them survive, now John is injured she will have to be the one who goes out and gets it. Through an old school friend Ellie ends up in New York and all it has to offer. Promising to work for a year and send the money home so John can have an operation.

In New York, despite sending money home, Ellie finds another life open for her. There is opportunity, wealth, fortune, better living conditions in fact everything is a dream. The American Dream, sold on the idea, Ellie wants to bring her husband over as well. But he is truly in love with his home land and whatever the offer is he will not come. Ellie’s one year turns into more and she only comes home when her father dies.  Now where do her dreams belong?

The book split into three parts also is spilt in the way the characters and descriptions are portrayed. Somehow Kerrigan creates the buzz and excitement of New York and this jumped off the page for me, and I could see that Ellie belonged and she wanted to make a future. In the parts set back in Ireland, somehow through the writing we were transported back to the times of bleak hardship. Ellie did belong there by her ancestry but there was something else. A determination to do what she wanted without certain constraints, but does she achieve it?

I really enjoyed this book, and I was not sure where it was going and how it would have ended up for all the characters, both those in American and in Ireland. Although the republican fight was dealt with, I felt it was dealt with in depth enough to impact the reader to the importance of what John was fighting for but also what Ellie was doing to help the cause.  A book full of freedoms and reflecting on recognising when they come along and should be embraced.

I find some reviews difficult because I want to mention more about the certain elements of the book in more depth but to do so would give away more of the plot, and then someone else might not discover the book at all or just pass it by because of my witterings. I mention this because this book made me think more about freedom, which is at the heart of the book in some ways. 

Freedom for Ellie to find herself; to be something not just someone’s wife. New York provides her that freedom and also the freedom of choice of destiny. Ironically she ends back in Ireland but she has learnt something whilst being away and we see that develop when she wants to do something other than being a wife. 

John is fighting for freedom. To be separated from home rule. My history shamefully is very woolly about this, and sadly the book did nothing to correct that. John is offered more freedom in going to America but chooses to stay with the freedom he has fought for, despite it being harder work. Does he do this as penance for the freedom their country has now got? 

Freedom effects other minor characters throughout the book. Ellie’s mother has another type of freedom when her husband dies and she us understood some more. Sheila, Ellie’s school friend seeks the freedom from working and being a servant, and wants the freedom of being married and doing nothing and having the servants! Isobel who Ellie briefly works for lives her married life freely with a bottle, free from her husband who is never there and free to do as she pleases and with who. Is this free love?

In some ways the title is the title of freedom Ellis Island. The book actually does not concentrate much on this part of the passage into America. More I think would have been much more interesting. This was the gateway to many Irish born individuals seeking a better life. The book only touches on the rather the process you had to go through before you could even enter America. 

From reading other reviews on this book, everyone keeps recommending Brooklyn by Colm Toibin as a better example of Irish immigration and America. Have any of you read it? Do you agree? Have you read Ellis Island? 

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3 thoughts on “Ellis Island – Kate Kerrigan

  1. I read and loved both. Both are very accomplished books. If you liked Tobin’s book, you’ll love Kerrigan’s. It’s a really good read. Very sympathetic characters and great atmosphere.

  2. I’ve read both and the expression ‘cocked hat’ comes to mind i.e. Ellis Island beats Brooklyn into same. Although fantastically well written, as almost all of Toibin’s books are, it lacks the heart of Ellis Island. And consequently the scale. Ellie’s journey is a momentous one on two levels: the trip to and from America. But the inner journey is even more epic. Kerrigan has used history to tell an heroic human story. And in Ellis Island you are more aware of the story than the mechanics of the writing. Which to me spells class.

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