Book Review: We Came through Ellis Island

Reading Level

Ages 9-12

Other Books in This Series

• On the Eve of Revolution
• Servant to Abigail Adams
• Our Journey West
• Yankee Blue Or Rebel Gray?
• Escape to Freedom
• Cowboys on the Western Trail
• When the Mission Padre Came to the Rancho
• We Came Through Ellis Island
• Hoping for Rain

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This great little book is part of National Geographic's I Am American series. In this installment, We Came Through Ellis Island, young Emma Markowitz (who becomes Emma Marks when her family docks in America) explains her family's transition from the poor steppes of Russia to the poor tenements of New York's Lower East Side.

As with other books in this series, this one illuminates with letters and diary entries, giving alternating tenors to a story that is told with one voice. The result is an excellent living example of how people lived and struggled in the days of Ellis Island and the great immigrant migrations of the last part of the 19th Century and early 20th Century.

The Markowitz family makes a sympathetic case. Young Emma is 12. She has an older brother, who wants to escape compulsory military service and so the entire family moves away. She has a younger brother who is curious about everything, including why his family is so poor. She has a father and mother, both of whom work very hard but have little hope of making a better world for their children. She has a grandfather and grandmother, neither of whom can conceive of leaving, even though their store is targeted by anti-Semitic mobs. (Yes, the Markowitzes are Jewish. This was another time ine Europe when Jews were the focus of vitriol and unfairness.)

This is the typical story of an immigrant family that finds its way to American somehow and manages to meet the varied and seemingly impossible challenges set against it from the outset (including getting their names spelled right on the importation papers). What makes this story fun and inspiring, however, is the boundless optimism that young Emma and her family have. They all work hard to make it in America, and they find their hard work rewarded. This is not to say that they lead lives of luxury. (Very few immigrants did.) It is to say, however, that they end the book a lot better off than when they started.

The situations are real, the dialogue convincingly appropriate, the pictures are a mixture of free-form art and actual photographs, and suffering and small happinesses of so many immigrants is plain to see that this book succeeds in making its reader not only understand in depth just how much the immigrant populations went through to "live the American dream" but also get a glimpse of the lives that those people came from and why they chose to throw their fortunes to the Atlantic winds.

Any study of the immigrant waves of American history would be mightily enhanced by this marvelous, easy-to-read, tremendously informative book.

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Social Studies for Kids
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David White