Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Long Way Home: An American Journey from Ellis Island to the Great War

Laskin, David. The Long Way Home: An American Journey from Ellis Island to the Great War. New York: Harper Collins, 2010.

R. Stuhr

It is interesting to read this book about 12 men who immigrated during the great 19th century wave of immigration in light of current debates on immigration and especially recent legislation in Arizona. Laskin's book is about the interesting path these men took to the United States, looking for opportunity, perhaps even seeking to avoid mandatory service in their native countries' armed forces, only to be drafted into the U.S. forces. We know this, we should know this about the ourselves and the population of our country, but this book serves as a reminder that the United States is made up of immigrants, that, in fact, this is what is special about our country--there is no specific ethnicity associated with being an American. The same people passing anti-immigrant legislation law in Arizona or passing English only laws have, somewhere in their not too distant ancestry a relative who came to this country speaking a language other than English (and English is such a rich expressive language because of its incorporation of words from all over the world).

Laskin's history looks back to the early lives of each of his subjects in their homeland and the reasons for their immigration. Most had a father or other relative living in the United States, some witnessed their villages or towns emptying out as the inhabitants left for America, all left expecting to find great opportunity--streets paved in gold. Most arrived in the United States to find opportunity but on a meager scale. They experienced discrimination, crowded and decrepit accommodations, minimal opportunities for work--often heavy and dangerous labor, and, for comfort, they gravitated toward small communities of those whose origin and language they shared.

A few of Laskin's subjects joined the army voluntarily as a viable employment option, others were drafted as the United States entered World War I. Laskin reports that the army was an army of recent immigrants, filled with soldiers who did not speak English and many were setting out to fight their own countrymen.

Although some of the immigrants whose stories are represented in this book went on to be decorated soldiers who established themselves with thriving families and successful careers others, Laskin writes, were killed in action, "[s]ome drifted. Some lived on the margins. Some never recovered from war wounds, whether physical or psychic" (327) in no small part from the trauma of war and the effects of poison gas. Not withstanding the contributions of immigrants in the war, as the war ended the Ku Klux Klan was having a resurgence and a building national fear of Communism led to the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924 which restricted most immigration and banned Asian immigration altogether.

This book serves as a social history of the First World War, as a tribute to the immigrant generation who served in the armed forces, and, sadly, as an always necessary reminder that we are a nation of immigrants. As I write this review, according to surveys, 51% of the U.S. population believe Arizona's legalized racial profiling as a means of identifying illegal aliens is "about right" (http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503544_162-20004030-503544.html). A Long Way Home is a thoughtful, somewhat sentimental history. Laskin's attachment to his subject allows him to provide an intimate perspective on an aspect of American history that provides context and illumination in our own dark times.

On order for the Grinnell College Libraries

Other books by David Laskin in the Grinnell College Libraries:

The Children's Blizzard. New York: HarperPerennial, 2005
Burling 2nd Floor F595 .L37 2004

Partisans: Marriage, Politics, and Betrayal among the New York Intellectuals. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000.
Burling 2nd Floor PS255.N5 L37 2000

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