John Mitchell, an officer of the Bureau of Immigration, is the guardian and last resident of Ellis Island in 1954. In this novel, Mitchell looks back over 45 years as gatekeeper to America and its promise of a better life. Winner of the 2015 European Union Prize for Literature.
It is a poignant tale of reminiscence, as well as a subtle commentary on current issues ... The book is a master study in emotion sans wordiness. Josse’s selection of the medium of journal writing for her anguished storyteller allows him to express these 'deeply troubling' memories in a safe space as they bubble up at the end of his Ellis tenure ... There’s subtle wit at play here, too ... Mitchell’s viewpoint is particularly interesting since it is that of an author from the other side of the Atlantic who chose to focus not on the immigrants themselves but rather on a character observing the passing tide of humanity ... a meditation on memory, but also a timely narrative on an unending condition.
The harsh realities of immigration are filtered through a man’s experiences in Gaëlle Josse’s novel, The Last Days of Ellis Island ... Ellis Island is as much a character as any of the people in the book. It is home to John, safe and familiar. But to the immigrants who pass through it on their way to Manhattan, it is a frightening, unpredictable gauntlet. John relays both perspectives with tender details ... The Last Days of Ellis Island is an absorbing novel in which beloved dreams are fast to shatter.
... evocative but too-abbreviated ... At barely 200 pages of large-size type, The Last Days of Ellis Island is so short that the sparseness must have been deliberate. Yet the brevity is ultimately dissatisfying. If Mitchell was so wrapped up in Ellis Island during his 45 years there, he certainly should have memories of more than three immigrants and two fellow employees. What was the daily routine in that self-contained world? How did they cope when storms stranded the ferries? What were Mitchell’s feelings at each step downward, as his beloved facility slid from importance? Instead of getting those insights, the book spends six precious pages on the World War II combat death of his nephew, an interlude that feels tacked on to show Mitchell in a wider context. Luckily, the brief portrayal of Mitchell that exists is pungent and often lyrical.