Sunday, January 8, 2012

Guardians of the Gate by Vincent N. Parrillo

Ellis Island was a beacon and haven for thousands of immigrants. For some immigrants, however, it was a nightmare. In Guardians of the Gate, professor and immigration expert Vincent Parrillo shows the both sides of the coin that was Ellis Island at the end of the 19th century.

In the 1890s, America had its doors open – presumably to everyone. The truth, however, was that the gate that presented hope and a better life to so many individuals could also be vicious, unforgiving and indelibly closed to some. Persons deemed “undesirable” or “sick” were often denied entry, finding themselves transported back to their home countries on the next ship. Other individuals were exploited or abused before being allowed to set foot on the mainland U.S.

The culprits of this corruption? Ellis Island employees themselves, the Guardians of the Gate.

Despite being the entry point for so many contemporary American’s ancestors (this reviewer for one), many people know very little about this place that possesses an indelible role in American history. Using real events, Parrillo brings readers back in time to Ellis Island, the place of dreams and also of unforgivable human abuses. Through Dr. Matthew Stafford, the novel follows the trials and travails that immigrants faced upon exiting the gangplank at Ellis Island, and the work of the few honest men involved in the Island’s operation to help immigrants begin new lives. The novel follows Stafford from his very first interaction with the Island until the Island’s government-induced overall investigation after exposure of the abuses occurring on it.

Interwoven in this tale is the story of Stafford’s illicit love affair with one of the Island’s nurses. How the affair would be perceived and accepted as well as its social and personal consequences are discussed, providing a portrait of non-Island New York society in the 1890s.

The historical facts contained in Guardians of the Gate provide a perfect foundation for the imagined ones, creating a novel that brilliantly combines the real and unreal. It is a wonderful addition to the world of historical fiction, particularly because it focuses on a time and place that few other works in the genre consider.

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