So many American families picture Ellis Island from the same perspective: through the stories of forebears who were among the millions of new immigrants passing through its halls.
In “The Last Days of Ellis Island,” Gaëlle Josse imagines a different viewpoint. Rather than viewing the facility through the eyes of those seeking a new life, the French poet and author hands the spyglass instead to a fictional bureaucrat within its walls. The character she creates, Commissioner John Mitchell, is the facility’s self-described “last guardian” and “last prisoner,” writing an account of his career as he readies the federal property for its 1954 shutdown after a 45-year career.
“I have an inexplicable urge to delve into a past I hoped I would be able to forget, but which it seems I cannot,” he begins.
The slim book, translated from the French by Natasha Lehrer, is latticed with historical details – including a few real characters, such as the island’s last detainee, a Norwegian man named Arne Peterssen. Its main story is entirely invented, an account of a man whose life is disrupted first by circumstances and later by his own choices. Josse explains in the book’s afterward that the story came to her after a visit to New York brought her to Ellis Island, now a national museum. It is wistful and, at times, disturbing.
The book, winner of a European Union Prize for Literature in 2015, is most affecting when Mitchell must consider how much human compassion should interfere with inflexible rules and pedestrian logistics. After inevitable errors, he concludes that “idealism is always on the side of the human spirit, guilt on the side of power, and history is always the only judge.”
Josse’s account is also engaging when it leaves Ellis Island behind, picturing Mitchell’s childhood in New York early in the 20th century and his short marriage to Liz, the sister of a childhood friend. “She was my intermediary, my intercessor, my translator, and my interpreter. Unlike me, she loved the city, the parade of people, the store windows, streetcars, broad avenues, all the bustle, as if it were a single, extraordinary, gigantic performance with multiple scenes and sets, a Broadway show split into parts, as unchanging as it was constantly reinvented.”
Mitchell, we learn, is a reserved man who finds a well-suited niche as a “reliable and efficient” civil servant. He rises through the ranks, overseeing the smooth functioning of “sleeping quarters, kitchens, infirmary, sanitary areas, and isolation zones” for the onslaught of new American hopefuls who came through Ellis Island before new laws diminished its role in 1924.
“Every language was spoken here. It was like a new tower of Babel, but instead of rising up to the sky, the building was low, tethered to the ground,” he says of his workplace.
Liz, more open and empathetic, works as a nurse on the island’s medical staff and gives him a greater understanding of the traumas behind the bookkeeping. Mitchell finds he is “discovering with her the meaning of abject misery, separation, and hope.”
The lessons are interrupted by tragedy: The narrator, so emotionally cautious he won’t even talk with his wife about why they remain childless, retreats into the lonely rhythms of his job after Liz’s death. Another family tragedy isolates him still more, with the island becoming “an outpost, a watchtower or rampart, with me standing sentinel against invasion.”
More distressingly, through flashbacks we learn about another event dominating Mitchell’s psyche. Decades earlier, he had abused his authority and raped a young Italian immigrant under the pretense of compassionately taking her aside to help her cause. The 19-year-old, Nella Casarini, is the daughter of a “caster of spells” and apparently inherited some of those powers, adding a supernatural note to the story that’s reinforced at the book’s end.
Mitchell bitterly regrets his actions, especially when a catastrophe strikes the woman’s family before he can intervene in their favor. The reader gets the sense, though, that his regrets don’t completely match up with his crimes. Nella curses Mitchell, yet he spends years trying to find out what happened to her, questioning whether she had “yielded to me merely out of desperation and necessity? … Or was it possible that, in spite of everything, she had seen me as a man who wanted to love her?” Such thoughts may be true to character for a protagonist from a very different era, but they’re disturbing to the modern reader. The first-person account also leaves us rudderless, unsure whether the author intends Mitchell to be an unreliable narrator or whether we’re supposed to actually see any opening in the scenes with Nella for romance or sympathy.
Ultimately, whatever lessons Mitchell has learned about compassion and guilt – and power – don’t feel like enough.