Monday, July 19, 2010

Guest Review: The Long Way Home

Summary: From the author of The Children's Blizzard comes an epic story of the sacrifice and service of an immigrant generation.

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, one-third of the nation's population had been born overseas or had a parent who was an immigrant. At the peak of U.S. involvement in the war, nearly one in five American soldiers was foreign-born. Many of these immigrant soldiers—most of whom had been drafted—knew little of America outside of tight-knit ghettos and backbreaking labor. Yet World War I would change their lives and ultimately reshape the nation itself. Italians, Jews, Poles, Norwegians, Slovaks, Russians, and Irishmen entered the army as aliens and returned as Americans, often as heroes.

In The Long Way Home, award-winning writer David Laskin traces the lives of a dozen men, eleven of whom left their childhood homes in Europe, journeyed through Ellis Island, and started over in a strange land. After detailing the daily realities of immigrant life in the factories, farms, mines, and cities of a rapidly growing nation, Laskin tells the heartbreaking stories of how these men—both conscripts and volunteers—joined the army, were swept into the ordeal of boot camp, and endured the month of hell that ended the war at the Argonne, where they truly became Americans. Those who survived were profoundly altered—and their experiences would shape the lives of their families as well.

Epic, inspiring, and masterfully written, The Long Way Home is the unforgettable true story of the Great War, the world it remade, and the men who fought for a country not of their birth, but which held the hope and opportunity of a better way of life. -- Harper

When I read the description for THE LONG WAY HOME: AN AMERICAN JOURNEY FROM ELLIS ISLAND TO THE GREAT WAY by David Laskin, I just knew it was the perfect book for my dad, Booking Pap Pap. I thought he might relate to it (or at least be interested in the storeis) since his grandparents and great-grandparents immigrated to the United States from Italy and Poland. I couldn't wait to share this book with him, and I'm so glad that he enjoyed it as much as I had hoped!

Here are his thoughts:

THE LONG WAY HOME by David Laskin tells the life stories of 12 immigrants who served in the United States military during World War I. These men came from Italy, Poland, Ireland, Russia, Slovakia, and Norway. One of them was not actually an immigrant but was born to immigrant parents in the United States and lived in an isolated Polish neighborhood in Wisconsin. Four of the men were Italian, three were Jewish, two were Polish, and one each was of Irish, Norwegian and Slovakian descent.

Laskin takes the reader through the men’s lives in Europe, their immigration to the United States, their time in the war and finally their postwar experiences. In order to tell these stories Laskin has thoroughly researched each individual through interviews with families and utilization of official government and military records.

Laskin tells the reader about life in Europe for these individuals at the beginning of the twentieth century. People were eking out a living sufficient for survival but not much more. This environment set the tone for immigration to America. Extreme poverty, no work, lack of hope, systematic oppression and military conscription drove these men to join the 23 million immigrants that came to the United States between 1880 and 1920.

The author chronicles the voyages of these men to America. He tells of the crowding and the filth on the ships, the endless lines and documentation at processing centers and the poor treatment of the individuals as they were examined for various diseases and maladies. By the time these immigrants arrived in the United States after about one week at sea they were dazed by exhaustion and hunger and confronted with a significant language problem. Despite these trials these eleven men managed to navigate their way to places like New York, New Jersey, Montana, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Massachusetts.

Laskin describes the life of the twelve immigrants in the U.S. as very difficult. As with most immigrants of that time they did not assimilate well into American society and basically reconstituted themselves in America as they were in Europe. Italians lived with Italians, Poles with Poles and Jews with Jews. They had their own stores, churches and newspapers and spoke their native languages. They worked the lower skilled jobs similar to what they did in Europe in mining, manufacturing, agriculture and construction. This massive influx of humanity spawned suspicion, anxiety, curiosity, fear and even hatred at all levels of American society which added to the difficulty of assimilation.

Author David Laskin spends a significant portion of the book discussing WWI, the role the United States played and the impact it had on these twelve men. The immigrant population responded fully to serving in the War even though many left Europe to avoid serving in the military. One possible explanation for this irony may be the promise of citizenship that came with serving. More than 500,000 immigrants served in the U.S. military during WWI. The author gives the reader a tremendous insight into the complications the conscription of immigrants caused due to among others language, racism and religious beliefs. Laskin traces the stories of these twelve men through basic training and each battle they fought. This is one part of the book that bogged down for me as every battle seemed to read the same. Laskin’s twelve immigrants distinguished themselves quite well during the War.

The book then delves into the lives of the immigrants after the War ended. Based on the stories of the ten Laskin men that survived, the War transformed them into Americans. The pride of serving won them the respect they had wished for when they arrived in the United States.

In THE LONG WAY HOME David Laskin does a great job of combining the personal lives of twelve men with the story of World War I and all the social and political ramifications of war. The book is well written and an easy read. I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the immigration in the early twentieth century or is curious about WWI.

Thanks to the publisher for sending a copy of this book and to Booking Pap Pap for his review.


bermudaonion said...

I bet my mom would love this. Her parents were immigrants and she often talks about how they stuck together with other immigrants. Their church and her school was made up of immigrants and their children. The book sounds fascinating!

Karlie said...

Sounds like one my husband might enjoy. Thanks "Booking Pap Pap".