Warmly human and extremely moving—a welcome addition to the Ellis Island literature.

ELLIS ISLAND

A PEOPLE'S HISTORY

A Polish journalist chronicles the history of America’s famed immigration station through the stories of individuals who worked there or passed through on their way to a new life.

In an afterword, Szejnert notes that she wrote this account after discovering that there were no books about Ellis Island available in Polish, but her people-centered narrative fills an English-language gap as well. Making extensive use of primary documents, including letters written by immigrants to family in the old country, the author captures the mingled hope and fear experienced as people entered the massive main building, equipped with modern accoutrements few had seen in their ancestral villages, and faced numerous bureaucratic barriers. Quotes from John Weber, the first Commissioner of Immigration at the Port of New York, and his successors make palpable the massive logistical effort required to process all these people—more than 1 million in the peak year 1907—and the officials’ commendable determination to do it fairly, efficiently, and humanely. Szejnert does not scant the fear of “degraded, backward” people “unfit to join into American life” that culminated in the 1924 law that basically slammed the door on Italian and Jewish immigration. But her emphasis is on the immigrants’ fortitude and resilience and the empathetic assistance of Ellis Island personnel—many themselves immigrants, such as interpreter Francesco Martoccia and social worker Cecilia Greenstone, one of several redoubtable matrons charged with protecting female immigrants from human trafficking. Szejnert reveals countless intriguing historical tidbits: the luggage room with space for 12,000 passengers’ bags, sick immigrants required to wash who “had never seen a bathtub and…were afraid to get in the water.” The author also evokes the island’s ghostly atmosphere after it was abandoned in 1954 and the determined efforts that led to its triumphant 1990 reopening as a museum, visited by 2 million people each year.

Warmly human and extremely moving—a welcome addition to the Ellis Island literature.

Pub Date: Aug. 4, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-950354-05-4

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Scribe

Review Posted Online: April 28, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2020

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This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

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BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME

NOTES ON THE FIRST 150 YEARS IN AMERICA

The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.

Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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A clear, useful guide through the current chaotic political landscape.

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WHY WE'RE POLARIZED

A sharp explanation of how American politics has become so discordant.

Journalist Klein, co-founder of Vox, formerly of the Washington Post, MSNBC, and Bloomberg, reminds readers that political commentators in the 1950s and ’60s denounced Republicans and Democrats as “tweedledum and tweedledee.” With liberals and conservatives in both parties, they complained, voters lacked a true choice. The author suspects that race played a role, and he capably shows us why and how. For a century after the Civil War, former Confederate states, obsessed with keeping blacks powerless, elected a congressional bloc that “kept the Democratic party less liberal than it otherwise would’ve been, the Republican Party congressionally weaker than it otherwise would’ve been, and stopped the parties from sorting themselves around the deepest political cleavage of the age.” Following the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, many white Southern Democrats became Republicans, and the parties turned consistently liberal and conservative. Given a “true choice,” Klein maintains, voters discarded ideology in favor of “identity politics.” Americans, like all humans, cherish their “tribe” and distrust outsiders. Identity was once a preoccupation of minorities, but it has recently attracted white activists and poisoned the national discourse. The author deplores the decline of mass media (network TV, daily newspapers), which could not offend a large audience, and the rise of niche media and internet sites, which tell a small audience only what they want to hear. American observers often joke about European nations that have many parties who vote in lock step. In fact, such parties cooperate to pass legislation. America is the sole system with only two parties, both of which are convinced that the other is not only incompetent (a traditional accusation), but a danger to the nation. So far, calls for drastic action to prevent the apocalypse are confined to social media, fringe activists, and the rhetoric of Trump supporters. Fortunately—according to Klein—Trump is lazy, but future presidents may be more savvy. The author does not conclude this deeply insightful, if dispiriting, analysis by proposing a solution.

A clear, useful guide through the current chaotic political landscape.

Pub Date: Jan. 28, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-4767-0032-8

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Avid Reader Press

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2020

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