Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A Nation of Immigrants

What does it mean when we hear political ads and campaign speeches calling our country a nation of immigrants?
HOPE AND TEARS, Ellis Island Voices, by Gwenyth Swain, Calkins Creek, 2012

Voices mixed in essays, stories, poetry, prose poems, and plays trace the chronology of Ellis Island, entry to the land of opportunity for so many of our ancestors.  One quarter of all Americans have an ancestral link to Ellis Island which was open from 1892-1954.  Peak years were 1903-04 when it’s thought five-thousand men, women, and children may have passed through each day.

Those who served the immigrants faced interesting challenges. Cooks struggled to feed people from diverse backgrounds. Religion or culture or lack of familiarity with available foods made it difficult to plan menus everyone could or would eat. Imagine seeing a bowl of spaghetti for the first time and thinking it’s a bowl of white worms!

Inspectors didn’t speak the many languages they heard from the throngs of people they had to process.  One inspector suggested a smile can be helpful in any language.
Nurses wanted to kiss babies to comfort them but were told not to, for fear of picking up a contagious disease. (Some did it anyway, when they thought no one was looking.)

The author visited Ellis Island to research and write the stories and to gather historical images and take photographs. You can visit, too at excellent library and history web sites. The bibliography includes books for young readers.

As one would expect from both author Swain and imprint, Calkins Creek, the material is well researched and documented with a reader-friendly index.

Ellis Island is no longer an immigration point, but a museum with a library and an oral history collection. As the book draws to a close, “Lisa”, a National Park Service Employee, wonders as the museum  closes for the day, whether there might be spirits in the shadows. Would anyone want to spend the night there? Probably not.

After you listen to the voices on each page, revisit the faces. They will stay with you a long time. Are they frightened? Are those tears from exhaustion or from mourning what was left behind? What are they thinking? What are they hoping? Here’s food for thought at your next family dinner table.


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