Szejnert has a style distinguished by pithy realism, deft plotting via recurring details and motifs, and deep dives for the not-so-ordinary words and deeds of ostensibly 'ordinary people' ... Szejnert resists any such hierarchy or objectification in presenting her human subjects ... Generally evenhanded, Szejnert may cede a bit more space and detail in Ellis Island to those whose professional training or empathetic character moved them to treat the dirty, seemingly uncivilized arrivals from Southern and Eastern Europe as fellow human beings, Americans in the making ... Far from reprising traditional accounts of the early-twentieth-century “American immigrant experience,” Szejnert’s Ellis Island: A People’s History leads us down as many surprising, sobering paths as the corridors connecting almost all of the buildings on the island... Guided by a keenly perceptive, curious foreigner, we emerge from her reportage with vivid, individualized memories of newcomers’ hardships endured, nativist fears aroused, official injustices carried, and the wide range of goodwill efforts invested in the processing and treatment of the more than sixteen million people who risked everything to resettle in the United States.
Szejnert revels in quoting juicy gossip ... American prejudice is a recurrent theme in the book. To readers today, its overtness can seem quite shocking, a reminder of how a society’s sensitivities change ... Ellis Island: A People’s History contributes to our knowledge of the island’s history through its Polish (and Polish Jewish) perspective. In Sean Gasper Bye’s skillful translation, and with lots of archival pictures, the book is also a pleasurable read for anyone wanting to know more about those who immigrated to the United States and those who, because of prejudice or sheer bad luck, never made it.
... a vibrant addition to the sizable bibliography in English [on Ellis Island] ... Drawing freely on letters, diaries, photographs and oral histories, most of the book recounts what Ellis Island was like for immigrants and government employees. Some of the most poignant passages draw from hundreds of letters sent back home—when Poland was absorbed into Russia—by Polish immigrants ... Though Szejnert’s book first appeared in 2009, its translation now is a reminder that the United States need not be defined only by a border wall.