Thursday, November 11, 2010

Review: The Long Way Home

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

Author: David Laskin
Narrator: Erik Synnestvedt
Publisher/Format: Tantor Media audio discs; 416 page equivalent
Subject: Immigrants who served in World War I
Genre: narrative history
Source: public library

I saw Ellis Island in the title and picked up this book because my grandfather arrived at Ellis Island in 1910.  He was 25, single, and his papers said his last residence was Avellino Italy.  I thought it might shed some light on what he went through when he came to America.

So I expected that this was going to be the story of how immigrants who arrived in the late 1800s and early 1900s became assimilated into American society.  Laskin certainly does cover that subject, and covers it very well.  However, in addition to the specific stories of 12 different immigrants he follows from their birthplaces in various countries, their immigration and landing at Ellis Island, their first jobs in America, and then their participation in WWI, to their return to the US, their later lives and their deaths, he gives us a detailed overview of US immigration policy, and the role and influence of immigrants in US society.

As he expounds on the immigration issues, one can't help but draw comparisons to the debate raging in our country today.  In 1914, one in three people living in the US was an immigrant or child of an immigrant.  They did not learn English, they stayed in small enclaves of people who spoke their language, worshiped their same god, ate the same food.  It was not until the US entered the war, and these men joined the armed services (almost all of them willingly) to fight for the US against what was for some of them their native countries, that they became not "kikes, jews, wops, & polacks," but Yanks one and all. The bonding that took place on the battlefield transcended language, religion, and customs; the friendships formed lasted lifetimes.

By following the lives of these twelve men and their families (4 Italians, 1 Norwegian, 1 Irish, and the others Slavs and Jews from Russia and the Russian Pale) he gives us a picture of hardship, loyalty, and determination. We get a history lesson and a humanity lesson.  I think he sums it up toward the end:
The only great thing about the Great War was the scale.  So why did they fight?  The question was especially fraught for America's immigrant soldiers.  To fight for your own country is an inescapable part of the social contract.  In exchange for the  benefits of a secure civil society, we offer our bodies  and, if need be our lives, in time of war. But the foreign born were asked, indeed forced to serve without having executed the social contract in full.   In the streets of America, they were aliens, but in no man's land they were expected to fight as fervently as native born Americans.   And for the most part, they did.    It was that loyalty in action that changed everything.  They righted the imbalance of the social contract not by protesting, but paradoxically by submitting.  Their pride in serving won them, and their families, the status they could never have gained without the war. 
In a war remembered more for senseless slaughter than for courage, the service of the foreign born shines.  Nearly  a hundred years later, it's one of the few things about the great war that still does.
 I enjoyed this book and learned a lot.  I do think however, that I've about gotten to the end of my war reading for's time for a change of pace.

1 comment:

  1. I had never thought of the effect of serving in the war on acceptance of immigrants. Very interesting. We too often forget that in the big scheme of things we're all immigrants.


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