Saturday, 26 February 2011

BOOK REVIEWS ~ If Your Name Was Changed at Ellis Island ~ By: Ellen Levine

By:  Ellen Levine
It was cold outside last night.  Isobel was at Grandpa and Grandmas, and John was working, so Alisdair and I were home alone.  I'm glad we took the opportunity to "curl up with a good book!"

Alisdair had enjoyed Ellen Levine's book, "If You Lived at the Time of Martin Luther King..." and so he wanted to read another title from the series.  Of the many available through inter-library loans, Alisdair chose "If Your Name Was Changed at Ellis Island...."

Although Ellis Island, in the New York Harbor, was where American immigrants were processed (and doesn't really apply to Canadians), I explained to Alisdair that the experience was probably similar to what went on in Halifax at Pier 21.  I also told him about how his own Great-Grandfather, Colin Henry Ramsay, came through Pier 21 when he left England and made Canada his home in the early 1900's.  My parents were able to go to Pier 21 last fall, while on holiday in the Maritimes, and they were able to search the records for information regarding the ship my Grandfather arrived on, and were able to obtain other information regarding his immigration, and that of a Great Uncle.

When I asked Alisdair if he knew any immigrants, he had to think for a while.  Then he asked tentatively, "Is Daddy an immigrant??!"  I answered in the affirmative, as his Father came to Canada in May of 1994, from Scotland.  He, too, was looking for a better life - and not just for himself, but also for any children we might have.  Although Gordon has been here ever since, he is not yet an official Canadian citizen.

Discussion about his Father's decision to move to Canada, brought up the point that immigration is not a thing of the past but it is still happening today.  There are other immigrants in our village, too  ~ the most recent ones are several industrious Filipino families that came to work in the now-defunct hog barns.  When the barns closed down, they found other employment.  These families have learned English, their children attend the local school, and they are fully integrated into the community.

Reading Levine's book, with its question and answer format, also brought up the topic of the Statue of Liberty and the poem, "The New Colossus," composed by Emma Lazarus in 1883, and engraved on the base of the pedestal. 

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A might woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles.  From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

I have always appreciated the line "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." These powerful words were "brought home to me" when Gordon and I decided to leave Scotland (where we had married) to come to live in my native Canada.  Others, who lived in the rugged housing scheme where we resided, at the time, did not have the option to emigrate available to them.  I was grateful we had "a way out" and didn't have to stay in that particular area, as there were serious problems with drugs and gangs in the immediate vicinity.

A reviewer for Publishers Weekly says Levine's book "offers a comprehensive, well organized discussion of the immigration procedures followed at Ellis Island between 1892 and 1914.   One-or-two page chapters offer concise answers to questions ("What did people bring with them?'; "What happened if you were detained?"; "How did people learn English?"), enabling youngsters to digest easily a significant amount of information. Facts about the many rigorous routines and tests (medical, legal, literacy) that new arrivals endured are peppered with the intriguing personal reminiscences of individuals who lived through them."

Ellis Island Processing
Photo - Housecallsin
"It's also evident that there's been long-standing prejudice against certain immigrants (ability to read was required for entrance, and first and second class arrivals didn't have to sweat it out at Ellis Island). Perhaps most interesting here are the individual stories: the name change in the author's own family [Levine's grandfather, Louis Nachimovsky, had his surname changed to Levine at Ellis Island]; the child who had never seen a banana and ate it whole [peel and all!]; and the "six-second'' medical exam [doctors watched immigrants as they climbed the stairs to the Great Hall.  They were looking for signs of any imperfection.]," notes an article from Kirkus Reviews.

Reading "If Your Name Was Changed at Ellis Island" gave me a newfound appreciation for the struggles faced, and the sacrifices made, by the immigrants of yesteryear.  While it is still difficult to leave everything you know, and all those you love, to begin a new life in another country, at least now there are increased opportunities to return to your homeland.  You can send faxes and letters - or even emails.  You can send "instant messages while on chat" or see one another over Skype.  You can talk on the telephone very reasonably (currently 3 cents per minute for the UK).  And, in the case of a family emergency, most people can use their credit card and be back with their loved ones with little delay.  How different it was in the early 1900's when immigrants came, knowing they would probably never see their loved ones, or their homeland, ever again.

Canada and the United States of America owe a debt to those immigrants who came to our shores.  Our countries would not be what they are today had these brave people stayed put.

Perhaps Levine explains this best when she answers the question:  "What contributions have immigrants made?":

From the time of America's founding, new immigrants have played an important role.  Eight of the fifty-five men who signed the Declaration of Independence were born in other countries.  And when Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration that 'all men are created equal,' he used the words of his Italian-born friend Philip Mazzei.

History books often list famous Americans who were immigrants.  These lists usually include Albert Einstein, the German-Jewish scientist; Alexander Graham Bell, from Scotland, who invented the telephone; Elizabeth Blackwell, English-born, the first woman doctor in America; Knute Rockne, the Norwegian football player and coach; Marcus Garvey, from Jamaica, the leader of the Back-to-Africa movement; Greta Garbo, the Swedish movie star; Spyros Skouras, the Greek movie producer; Irving Berlin, the Russian-Jewish composer and songwriter; Enrico Fermi, the Italian scientist, and many others.

But millions of immigrants, not just the 'famous' ones, created or started things that we think of as totally American.  We take these things for granted, but they are the contributions of immigrants:
- log cabins first build by Swedes;
- symphony orchestras and glee clubs organized by Germans;
- movies produced in America by Russian Jews and Greeks;
- Santa Claus, bowling, and ice-skating from the Dutch.

Many peoples contributed to American English.  'Yankee' is a Dutch word, and 'alligator' is Spanish.  'Phooey' is from German, and 'prairie' is French.  'Jukebox is African, and 'gung ho' is Chinese.  And there are hundreds more words that were originally foreign and are now part of the English language.

If you think of Native American Indians as the first immigrants, then the names of many states come from Indian 'immigrant' languages:  Arizona, Wisconsin, Wyoming, Connecticut, Mississippi, and Oklahoma, to name a few.  'Raccoon,' 'skunk,' and 'succotash' also are Indian words.

As Abraham Lincoln said, immigrants have been 'a source of national wealth and strength.'  (Pages 72-75).

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