Friday 15 October 2010
Ellis Island by Kate Kerrigan
Published in 2009 by Pan Books
The first time I fell in love with John, I was eight and he was ten.
One day, Maidy Hogan called down to the house with a basket of duck eggs and asked my mother if I could play with her nephew. His parents had both died of TB and he was sad and lonely, she said. But for his aunt coming to ask for me in the way she did, my mother would never have let me out to play with him. My mother didn't approve of boys, or playing, or of very much at all outside of cleaning the house and protecting our privacy.
I was interested in reading this book after I saw it in the library, not long after reading Brooklyn by Colm Toiben. I had convinced myself that basically both books contained the same story. Young Irish girls goes to New York to live a new life and make money. To an extent both books were very similar, as both followed an almost identical journey. The only part I found to be really different were the endings.
In Ellis Island, Ellie goes to work in New York in order to pay for her husband John's operation. John was heavily involved in the IRA and was shot during the War of Independence, resulting in such a serious injury that without an operation he wouldn't be able to walk again. Ellie has no qualms about going to live in America or about travelling there alone and you cannot help but admire her braveness.
Once Ellie settles into servitude in New York, she quickly falls in love with the country and wants to stay there permanently. She is a very determined lady and soon rises up the career ladder. Her original plan to stay one year is dashed as she stays a further three. Ellie tries to encourage her husband to come and live with her, but he has no wish to and the distance puts a strain on there marriage. She soon falls for the charms of an American aristocrat, but romance is dashed, when she is summoned back to Ireland where her father lays on his death bed.
I found this a lovely book to read. I admit that the story really didn't take off for me until Ellie moved to New York, but after that I couldn't put it down. It reminded me a little of Breakfast At Tiffany's with it's vivid descriptions of life in New York during the Jazz Age.
As soon as Ellie was summoned home to Ireland, you watch as the poor girl's life changes dramatically. She goes from having it all to living with the bare minimum. To have it all, then to have experience sheer poverty would be hard on anyone. No electricity, no running water, no modern technology at all, which she had loved and grown to expect in America. However Ellie is a strong and feisty character and does overcome her losses,going onto become a much better person. Not content to stay at home as a housewife, she opens a shop, which soon becomes the most popular one in the village.
I did feel that this book expanded on my historical knowledge. Kerrigan's finely crafted story brought to life the details of emigration to America, as well as the plight of the Irish during the beginning of the century. It left me craving for more information on this topics.
This is a wonderful romantic historical drama, which makes a great accompaniment to Brooklyn by Colm Toiben.