Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

Hope and Tears: Ellis Island Voices

Hope and Tears: Ellis Island Voices

Gwenyth Swain
Historical Fiction
For ages 10 and up
Boyds Mills Press, 2012   ISBN: 978-1590787656

For hundreds of years the small scrap of land that would one day be called Ellis Island was home to oysters and sea gulls. Sometimes Native Americans came there to fish and to find oysters. In the 1600’s the Dutch bought the island but they did not do much with it either. When the U.S. government felt that they needed to defend New York City against the British, they added soil to the island and then built a fort on the site.

   Then, in the late 1800’s, it was decided that the island would make a perfect place for an immigration center. Thousands of immigrants were coming to the United States and the government needed a secure place where they could process everyone. In 1892 the immigration station was opened and ready for business.

  The first person to be processed at Ellis Island was a fifteen-year-old girl from Ireland. Her name was Annie Moore and she was given a grand welcome. Though she appreciated the blessing, the cheers, the certificate, and the gold coin she received, Annie’s biggest gift was the knowledge that her parents were waiting for her.

   Annie was the first of many millions of people who moved through Ellis Island. They came from all over the world seeking a new life. Many of the immigrants were children, and Elizabeth Martin from Hungary was one of them. She “met the Liberty lady on Christmas Eve” in 1919. Though Elizabeth and her family members were “too full of worry to remember the date,” someone had made an effort to make the processing hall look festive. There were decorations hanging around the room and Santa Claus was there, and he gave the little girl a gift.

   Many of the immigrants were afraid when they arrived on Ellis Island. Often they did not know any English and they had to pass a series of inspections. The inspections included medical examinations which were conducted by doctors, and immigrants knew that the doctors might turn them away if they found a medical condition that could not be treated easily or that was very contagious. The immigrants also had to show that they had money with them, and after 1917 they had to prove that they could read. Some of the inspectors were impatient with the new arrivals and unsympathetic, but there were others who understood that they were frightened. One such inspector was Najeeb Abreely. He could “see the fear in their faces,” and would try to find the right words to say to “soothe their fears.”

   Though most of the immigrants were soon on their way to New York City, there were others who were detained for legal or medical reasons. There were also the single women who had to stay on the island until a male relative came to collect them. It was not easy for the immigrants who had to live on the island for weeks or even months at a time. Sometimes children were separated from their sick mothers, and they were cared for by Ellis Island employees until their mothers were well again. A woman called Mrs. Pratt took care of and taught many immigrant children. She taught them “stories, sewing, songs, and sums.”

   In this remarkable book the author used the stories of the people who came through, worked, or visited Ellis Island to give us a picture of what took place on the island over the years. She turned the real accounts and stories she found into the letters, poems, monologues, dialogues, and diary entries that make up the book. Period photos accompany the text, letting us see the places and the people that are mentioned.

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