Writing about Ellis Island

As with many other Americans, Ellis Island is a link to my heritage.  Three to four generations ago, it was the first American soil upon which my German, Irish, and Italian ancestors stepped after their overseas voyages.

Although I was never able to learn and preserve their stories of the journey and processing at Ellis Island, I collected oral histories of many other immigrants, either directly or through the efforts of my students, who recorded the recollections of their own family members or others.

Almost 20 years ago, I wrote, narrated, and produced a television documentary, Ellis Island: Gateway to America.  Telecast on both cable and PBS stations, it won several awards and can now be viewed at http://www.njvid.net/showvideo.php?pid=njcore:16573.

All of these factors—plus earning a master’s degree in English, teaching American literature in high school for four years, then developing a sociological background in immigration, and having a fondness for history—were elements in my background that influenced my writing the historical novel, Guardians of the Gate.

Many people know something about Ellis Island, but for most, that knowledge rests on images and stories from the time of massive immigration after 1900.  Few people know about the “old” Ellis Island of the 1890s and its many problems.  Many dramatic events occurred in that decade and it was a fascinating story that I wanted to tell.

At the same time, I wanted to captivate readers by weaving a love story throughout the book.  Drawing from Shakespeare’s line that the course of true love never did run smooth, I wanted to create a tale that followed such a path.  And, I wanted to create characters about whom the reader would care—ones with whom the reader would become involved, wondering what would next happen to them.

Anyone who reads this book will learn much about the early Ellis Island and gain insights into the resilience of the human spirit, as demonstrated by the people on this island, whether they were immigrants passing through or employees working there every day. 

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