The Last Days of Ellis Island

A man looks back on his long tenure at America’s former entry point.

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.

‘In the tale of this fictional bureaucrat, Josse powerfully evokes the spirit of the “huddled masses” who landed on America’s shores while creating a memorable portrait of a man torn between his commitment to his difficult job and the longings of his heart.’ Kirkus starred review.

This is portrait of hope, aspiration, suffering and courage that won’t be easily forgotten and was the perfect read to remind me of the courage shown by generations gone by with so much more to endure than we have had to, even in these uncertain times…

statue of Liberty

If you love a non-fiction read you can really get caught up in, that will make you think about its events long after finishing it and remember the characters you meet through its pages, then The Last Days of Ellis Island might be your next favourite read. I’m always a sucker for any book that’s got the slightest connection to emigration and setting off for new horizons and I was really drawn in by John Mitchell’s story and determined to see Ellis Island for myself once these awful travel restrictions are over.  I love books that educate me as well as draw me into their story and I read this across a chilly autumn weekend – totally losing myself in the stories I encountered in its pages and Gaelle Josse’s fantastic sense of atmosphere in this immersive and sweeping read.

three person standing outside closed door

 The Last Days of Ellis Island  is a tale written in diary form, which is a clever device that allows you to draw parallels and see the differences between our expectarions and John William’s perceptions and insights as we watch the ‘huddled masses’ come and go as their tales unfold in an incredibly lifelike way. Their story is so captivating that it’s easy to forget that for so many people, this was not fiction, it actually happened as they travelled across the oceans in search of a better life– witnessing the daunting obstacles and challenging ordeals that they managed to endure together.

statue of Liberty

Gaelle Josse has a deft and distinct turn of phrase and recreates John’s insights, experiences and thought patterns very skilfully in order to make both him and the characters that he encounters come to life in these pages. This is an moving and shocking read at times and there are some scenes that might shock – especially if you find sexual assaults difficult to read about. The most important thing for me is that the bravery of these travellers and all that they went through is wonderfully brought to life for a generation who can only imagine the circumstances that they went through in their determination to seek out the New World in search of hope for themselves and their families.

grayscale photo of a group of immigrants with bags inside

If you want a memorable and beautifully written book that brings a moment in history alive and ensures that you think a little more deeply about the concept of emigration and the hope, despair and bravery that compels people to leave everything they know behind and gamble everything on a new horizon and a journey into the unknown you’ll love this book and I know a few book-loving friends who I will be suggesting it to as a fresh insight into this momentous period in American history.

Why don’t you treat yourself to a copy and find out more about their stories for yourself?

Writer On The Shelf

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.

Translator on the Shelf

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.

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