Ellis Island (Euphemia)

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.

Lots of ROW80 Progress

I’m up to over 38,000 words on my third Russian novel and just starting Chapter 7, after only about 20 days of work. It’s now hard to imagine how I ever wrote for so many years on my parents’ various computers, having to wait my turn to use them and having to leave their room after a certain time. Writing on a computer goes so much faster when you’ve got your own.

Since I’m now writing a couple of chapters covering the journey of Lyuba’s stepcousin Nadezhda from Siberia into America, I went back to the first book to check a few things for her interview with the immigration official in San Francisco. (I also successfully figured out when her birth month would be.) It was pretty embarrassing to see two different versions given of when and how her uncle (Lyuba’s stepfather) was taken away in 1918.

The first version, given by her boyfriend Pavel, has her being woken up by noises and seeing her uncle being led away in early 1918. Then Nadezhda says, a few chapters later, that this happened when she’d been staying with him for a bit over a year, and that when she tried to see what the Bolsheviks were doing to her belovèd uncle, he pushed her into a closet to hide her. Those are two rather differing versions of the same event!

And if this was early 1918, she couldn’t have been staying with him for over a year. She escaped from the butchers who murdered her parents in May of 1917 and found her way to a peasant woman who took her in while she recovered. Nadezdha says she joined her uncle that summer.

I’d earlier found another embarrassing error of this sort. In Chapter 7, little Nikolay somehow manages to be two places at once in the same scene. At least I can blame this on that chapter having parts written at different times. He can’t both be downstairs eating ribbon candy with the older kids and upstairs getting sick and vomiting!

And while looking up information about the buttonhook test for trachoma, and seeing if it still might’ve been used in 1933, and outside of Ellis Island, I came across a bunch of new information about Ellis Island. I’d never come across these facts while doing my research for Chapter 22, the chapter that opens Part II of the first book. So I had to add it in, and take out some other things that didn’t work. Like, Ivan is a bit too honest in his interview, like he wants to give them a reason not to admit him to the country.

I also didn’t know immigrants got mental tests after their physical tests. They had to assemble puzzles and draw geometric figures to prove they were mentally sound. And apparently single women weren’t allowed to leave the Island alone, and unmarried couples couldn’t leave together. So Lyuba and her single friends all claim Mr. Lebedev (her future stepfather) as their uncle. And now it’s been written in that Lyuba and Ivan are lying to their tenement landlord about being married.

Little did I know I’d end up with a guy with similar issues about getting married when I wanted it. At least I was using Ivan’s insistence on saving up enough money for a fancy cathedral wedding as a plot device! And at least Ivan is a good kisser (hell, knows how to do it period) and doesn’t think closed-mouth five-second kisses are passionate and romantic.