Ellis Island
Kate Kerrigan
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Buy *Ellis Island* by Kate Kerrigan online

Ellis Island
Kate Kerrigan
Harper Paperbacks
368 pages
June 2011
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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While there’s not one plot twist that isn’t telegraphed or one character that doesn’t come across as a stock stereotype, Kerrigan’s expressive, gorgeous writing saves the day in this compulsively readable tale of a feisty Irish girl who crosses the Atlantic, enduring great hardship along the way as she attempts to make money in America to pay for her husband’s surgery.

Although her story begins in rural Ireland, Ellie Hogan truly transforms her years, coming to a completely different place, time and fate. Living with her father, a religiously devout civil servant who works for the British government, and her diffident, emotionally distant mother, “forever tuned to second-hand scandal,” it’s not surprising that Ellie turns to kindly neighbors Maidy and Paud, who together with their son John make her feel part of the family and treat her like a daughter.

Among blackberries and hedgerows, peat bogs and muddy lanes, the drama and clarity of new love and fresh happiness is unsullied by the past and unworried by the future. John loves Ellie more than he loves his country, but this love is tested when John becomes a vagabond and warrior, going off to fight for Home Rule. For the first time in history, John is inspired by the fact that there’s a real possibility of Ireland separating from England and governing itself.

Thus begins Kerrigan’s spirited, intelligent tale, the weaving of a passion and a love in a complicated mesh that fuses the immigrant experience with old-world Irish ideals. With no money and no food, both Elle and John are forced to fight the war of poverty. Then comes a letter from Ellie’s strong and spirited best friend, Sheila, offering chance to build a better life in New York.

The troops and thugs, the violent Black and Tans forever transform John’s world. Ellie is forced to board the monstrous RMS Celtic and cross the vast ocean as “big as the world itself,” Ireland becoming but a memory. Against a background of Lady Liberty, “a beautiful white goddess, so welcoming and warning,” to the sun glittering off the spires of Manhattan’s million windows, we witness Ellie’s excitement at a new world, a new life and a new beginning in a story that literally races along.

Broadway is endless with its distinguished hotels, brothels, tenements, theaters and music halls. Ellie indentures as a parlor maid to wealthy, drunken and bored Isobel. Cooking, cleaning, and enduring a whirlwind of instructions and lessons, she fails to tell reckless Sheila about John or any of the tragic circumstances that have led to her coming to America. From falling down alone on the streets of New Jersey, her fight gone, to meeting dashing Charles Irvington, Ellie always holds dear the man she has loved since infancy.

Ultimately, this novel is a homage to one woman's resolve to achieve her aspirations. John is Ellie's life and the reason she comes to America. Flailing with doubt and “dashed on the hard rocks of uncertainty,” Ellie meets the challenge of a vibrant, glamorous, exciting, even liberating America to see who she truly is, her enduring love for John her ultimate reward.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Michael Leonard, 2011

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