A couple of weeks ago I received a copy of The Long Way Home: An American Journey from Ellis Island to the Great War by David Laskin for review. Having taught about both immigration and World War 1 in the American History class I was teaching at a local university I looked forward to reading Laskin’s book.
Laskin chronicles a little recognized aspect of America’s involvement in the Great War. You see, during the First World War, nearly 20% of the soldiers that went war were foreign-born. In history classes we talk about the Third Great Wave of immigration at the turn of the century. We even discuss the different immigrant groups’ reaction to way breaking out in Europe. But rarely do we acknowledge the large percentage of immigrants that fought in the US military in the war. The long Way Home follows the stories of 11 individuals who came to the US as immigrants and left as soldiers to fight in the war.
Our story begins with these 12 individuals (11 immigrants and 1 US-born of immigrant parents). We are provided with a snapshot of who these folks are and why they are seeking a better life in the US. The diversity of the individuals is evident right from the start. They come from countries such as Italy, Poland, Russia, Ireland; they are Jewish and Catholic and “other”. Laskin’s descriptions of the immigrants’ experiences even before they leave their country helps relate the crazy atmosphere that existed at the docks and on the ships. And then once they arrive, the hoops they needed to jump through to make it past the examiners at Ellis Island. It makes one wonder how any made it in at all.
As the events in Europe begin hurdling the world toward what would be come known as World War One, Laskin relates the mixture of emotions plaguing the immigrant community. Irish rooting against Britain because of Britain’s control of Ireland; Poles hoping for a free Poland; Jews wanting to fight for Germany against the Russian czar; a true mix of feelings and interest which was but a microcosm of the European picture as a whole.
It is against this backdrop that Laskin follows these 12 through the war. Some of them survived the war and some of them did not. However, each of their stories deserved to be told and David Laskin has done an outstanding job in telling them. I highly recommend this book.