Books are cheaper than heroin, but they DO add up....

Amy, Carrie, Chanin and Sarah buy (and read and review) their own stuff. They've been known to shop around from dealer to dealer looking for the best price. If you're interested in slipping them something to try out, just contact us.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Ellis Island Interviews by Peter Morton Coan

Once upon a time, I was a student of history. Or, as many of my professors felt, a student of History. It's very important you see. After all, you can't know where you're going if you have no idea where you've been. What I loved most about learning history in college (besides the theatrics of my teachers that is) was all of the primary sources. In high school, you read from the textbook and sometimes from a novel to emphasize a time period, but rarely do you get to read articles, interviews, advertisements, government decrees and rulings, diaries, full speech texts, and the like. And that's where the good stuff is. All the imperfections and everyday struggles, the triumphs and tragedies, the biases, the yearning for something better, the soap opera that is the making of a people's history: that's what you get when you look at primary sources. So after that once upon a time when I was a student, I became a teacher. And made my students read the textbook. But I also made them read primary sources. What I found was that most of my students didn't share my passion for History, but they all liked a story told in first person. They liked gossip. So even though I've been past those once upon a times for more a little over four years now, I still can't turn down a good (true-to-the-teller) story told in the first person. And that's what you'll find in this book.

This is a collection of interviews of immigrants and federal employees, all connected through Ellis Island. For 62 years (1892-1954), the Golden Door was the headquarters for Immigration and Naturalization Services for the New York area. During that time the INS processed more than 12 million immigrants, setting the stage for a diverse United State of America. Just imagine the how crazy every day at work must have been for the employees, as they processed hundreds of people speaking different languages, many of whom would have been on solid ground for the first time in weeks.  The facility is now part of the National Park Service and its vast number of buildings have been partially restored. It's a place I hope to visit sometime. To walk in the footsteps of the millions who left everything behind to seek a different, hopefully better and prosperous, life here in America. Not to get too grandiose, but these are people that made a leap of faith that spanned continents and oceans and Ellis Island would be their first look at their landing point; pretty cool, in my dorky opinion.

This book provides a brief history of how the island became the portal to America and then presents the interviews in chapters divided by nationality, along with a chapter for employees. There are a number of photographs and drawings as well as some transcripts of the "investigation" of some immigrants (including Bella Lugosi who did not mention anything about sucking blood or changing into a bat at any point during his interview). The book is well organized and laid out so it's easy to pick and choose chapters of specific interviews if you don't want to read them all, but once you start it's hard to stop. One of my favorite interviews was that of Dr. James Baker who served as the psychiatrist on the island for two years. He describes some of the treatments they used on "excited" immigrants who had been sent to him for further consideration. Hydrotherapy, electro-shock, lobotomies....they apparently did it all there. Also Leslie Townes, who was five when his family emigrated, discusses how he later saw Ellis Island and thought "thanks for the memory." Turned out to be a pretty good thought for Leslie Townes, better known as Bob Hope. There's an interview of three siblings (with some very awesome sibling interjections) from Poland who mostly remember being detained for six weeks due to ringworm and that they learned to speak English in less than two months after they arrived. All walks of life from all over the globe were interviewed for this book, making it full of gossip and good stories. If you're into that sort of thing.

 PS for Natalie: Baron von Trapp came to America through Ellis Island in 1938. So now you know they made it through the mountains. :) Pin It


  1. Can't wait to read this! I, too, love the "human" story. Plus, my hubby's great grandfather came through Ellis Island from Ireland. Too cool. Also, for Natalie, the Von Trapp's did not actually go through the mountains. (Believe me, I was disappointed by this news as well!) They "walked across the street to the train station."

    1. It must have been a wide road to allow them to get all the way through "Climb Every Mountain" before they boarded the train. :D