Font: Euphemia (wanted Edwardian Script, but it was too hard to read for an extended period, even in 30-point type)

Chapter: “Ellis Island”

Book: You Cannot Kill a Swan: The Love Story of Lyuba and Ivan

Written: Spring 1999 or 2000

Computer created on: It was a Mac that must’ve been made in ’96 or ’97, or a new ’99 one.

File format: Word98 (first and only time I wrote any chapters of my first Russian novel in Word!)

This is Chapter 22 of my first Russian historical novel, the first chapter of Part II, “America.” I had so much fun doing the research for this, because I’ve always been fascinated by the history of immigration to the United States, and Ellis Island. More recently, I went back and did some editing on this chapter, after finding out some new information (like how single women and unmarried couples weren’t allowed to leave alone, and how immigrants had to do puzzles to test their mental powers).

Our characters arrive on 3 May 1921, after having left from the port of Tallinn on 15 March. They were very lucky to get in, as restrictions on immigration began tightening that year. In early 1924, it became even more difficult for anyone from Eastern or Southern Europe to immigrate, thanks to all those racist, xenophobic laws. People from Asia couldn’t immigrate even with a miniscule quota (which was never even met in all those years it was on the books). America is made of immigrants, even the Native Americans themselves. These laws severely restricting certain races and ethnic groups from entering are one of the biggest black eyes in our nation’s history. Many people died because they weren’t allowed to leave dangerous situations, like Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia. Rant over.

Lyuba’s party traveled second-class, but they end up having to go through the processing station with steerage, instead of inspected right on the boat like they were promised. Along the way, there are a couple of problems, but eventually everyone is allowed to enter the mainland. I now realize that a large White Russian immigrant community was established uptown in Hamilton Heights, but I’m too used to having them in the Lower East Side to undertake significant rewriting to change the setting. I think the downtown setting works better for the storylines of the first two books than putting them uptown would anyway.

The chapter ends with Kat and Nikolas’s wedding and Nikolay’s baptism at the Kissing Post.

Some highlights:

“The Americans in government now are racists,” Katrin proclaims. “Don’t you remember what Pyotr said?  They’ll send back people with a little birthmark on their neck if it looks like it’s contagious.  I even heard they once sent an old woman back because one of her fingernails was black, even though it wasn’t from disease.”

“Does anybody here have relatives to take them in?” Katrin asks. “I also heard they routinely send people back if they don’t furnish proof of employment or family waiting for them.”

“Time to be checked out by customs,” Katrin’s young suitor tells them after the three hours are up. “Don’t say anything incriminating.  And be warned, single women aren’t allowed to leave the island without male escorts, and they don’t let unmarried couples leave together.”

Anastásiya screams as the eye doctor flips her eyelids back with a buttonhook.  Katrin begins to whimper when her turn comes up.  That indignity, however, is soon overtaken when various jigsaw puzzles are set before everyone.

“I’m twenty, not five,” Katrin huffs. “If you’re giving us these puzzles for us to pass our time, you could at least do to give us puzzles with a hundred or more pieces.”

Anastásiya has switched from crying to her old bad habit of biting her nails since she’s gotten discharged by the doctors.  She’s biting them harder and more desperately than ever before because she’s afraid of spending the night here, on Ellis Island, surrounded by strangers.

Lyuba watches with tears in her eyes as the priest marries Kat and Nikolás.  Kat is wearing a purple silk gown and holding a nosegay of flowers she’s bought from one of the vendors.  Nikolás is wearing the only suit in his possession.  Kittey stands by, wearing a pink velvet dress and holding a second nosegay, serving as the bridesmaid.  For the first time since the Revolution, everyone in the wedding party is able to take Communion.

9 thoughts on “Ellis Island (Euphemia)

  1. I am a first generation immigrant (from Romania), so this article held a lot of appeal to me. 1921 was a world completely different from today, of course, and the immigrant experiences much scarier. But the feel of it, the idea of having to leave it all behind and start a whole new life, were probably very similar.
    You write beautifully. Glad I got a chance to read this great piece.
    Silvia @ Silvia Writes

    Like

  2. Very informative blog, Carrie Anne. Many of us have had relatives who immigrated here so we can imagine how they felt being in a strange land with different customs. They were all courageous people who came to America seeking a better life.

    Like

  3. I can’t imagine what they went through, to leave everything behind and start new somewhere else.

    I wasn’t able to visit Ellis Island on my last New York trip because of Sandy damage, but I’d like to visit one day.

    Like

  4. How very difficult and demeaning the immigration experience has been and continues to be for so many people. As Deannie above says, it takes such courage to leave one’s homeland for strange shores and strange customs–courage and, frequently, desperation.

    Very interesting post–thank you!

    Like

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