Ellie Flaherty was raised by parents who are pious, distant, and haunted by the sins of their ancestors. Her consolation comes from her neighbors, Paud and Maidy Hogan, and their orphaned nephew, John, who care for Ellie as their own and give her love and support. Close in age, John and Ellie become close friends and then childhood sweethearts, only to be separated when John accepts a position as an apprentice to a Dublin cabinet maker. While in Dublin, John joins the Volunteers and is caught up in the revolutionary fervor sweeping Ireland. Ellie, meanwhile, escapes her family by enrolling in a convent school, where she befriends several of her fellow students.
When John returns from Dublin, he and Ellie rekindle their relationship and eventually elope. John’s commitment to the Volunteers becomes a drain on the newlyweds’ already meager resources, and a devastating injury renders John unable to provide for the family. When Ellie receives a letter from a convent school friend who has made her fortune as a lady’s maid in New York, Ellie sees a way out of the misery of her life – and a way to help her husband get the medical care that he needs. Against John’s wishes, Ellie travels to New York City, where she works alongside Sheila as lady’s maid to a steel baron’s spoiled, alcoholic wife. On her own in New York, Ellie begins to realize her potential, but she is constantly drawn back to her beloved husband and her homeland.
Kerrigan has written an enjoyable immigrant tale featuring vibrant descriptions of both Ireland and 1920s New York City. Like most novels with similar themes, it can be a bit sentimental, and you’ll pretty much know how it’s going to end as soon as it starts. But Ellie is a charming character, and her irrepressible spirit and zest for life make Ellis Island a comforting read.