The Last Days of Ellis Island

Written by Gaëlle Josse Natasha Lehrer (trans.)
Review by Pamela Schoenewaldt

Winner of the European Union Prize for Literature, this slim novel won widespread critical praise for its lyrical, melancholy memoir and confession of a fictional immigration officer, John Mitchell, who faithfully carries out his bureaucratic functions at Ellis Island from the great surges in the early 20th century until long after the flow of immigrants shrinks to a trickle. He will be the last to leave when the doors close in 1954, his footsteps echoing in the deserted halls and waiting rooms.

Mitchell details his blissful but tragically short marriage, his dwindling life outside the island, and one unforgivable abuse of power. He sees the streams of immigrants and details the dehumanizing process by which they are judged, cataloged, and admitted—or refused entry—to the America of their dreams. He’s less articulate, perhaps incapable, of recounting positive emotions of joy, relief, happy anticipation, and excitement that must have been on equal display as immigrants moved through the Ellis Island bureaucracy.

Readers familiar with immigration history will note a major inaccuracy. Mitchell’s great sin, recounted in aching detail, happens in 1923, involving a young woman whose visibly handicapped brother is refused entry. By that time, however, prospective immigrants with any of a long list of “deficiencies” could not have booked passage in steerage. This aside, the novel provides a unique view of immigration history—that of the hard-working, mostly honest, mostly highly dedicated officials who were the immigrants’ first encounter with the New World.