Vincent J. Cannato: ‘American Passage’: It’s Ellis Island’s history, and ours, too

Source: USA Today, 6-15-09

American Passage: The History of Ellis Island
By Vincent J. Cannato
Harper, 419 pp., $27.99

By Craig Wilson, USA TODAY

Ellis Island: Immigrants have just landed and are headed for the island's main building. Over the years Ellis Island has grown to 27 acres from its original three, yet it still remains a mere dot in New YorkHarbor. Its small size, however, belies the huge role it has played in American history. Some 12 million immigrants passed through its gates from 1892 to 1924, the greatest mass migration of people the world had ever seen. So, yes, more than a few stories lurk out there in the harbor mist.

American Passage: The History of Ellis Island is being billed as the first complete history of the famous island. At almost 500 pages — 75 of them footnotes — the claim should be taken seriously. Historian Vincent Cannato appears to have overlooked nothing in telling the tale of the historic island, now a national monument, and 16 pages of black-and-white photos bring his research to life.

But he concedes in his acknowledgments that he wanted the book’s subtitle to be “A” history of the island and not “The” history. “No one story encapsulates the Ellis Island experience; there are literally millions,” writes Cannato, a history professor at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. “For most immigrants, Ellis Island was a gateway to a new life in America. It was an integral part of their American passage.”

Cannato’s research takes us from the island’s early days of hosting pirate hangings to its rebirth as a national park in 1986. The good news is that Cannato is not only a meticulous researcher and historian, he’s also a lively storyteller. A rare combination….

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