Friday, January 10, 2014

Standing Beside the Golden Door: Angel Mountain: Gateway to Gold Mountain by Russell Freedman

By 1880, there were more than 100,000 Chinese in the United States. In 1882 Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act--the first time the United States excluded immigrants because of their nationality or race.

Until then, immigration to America had been free and unrestricted for all; newly arrived immigrants had simply walked off the the boat.

For those of us whose ancestors just stepped off the gangplank to become citizens when their feet touched American soil, immigration is likely a minor footnote to our family histories. But for those who came after 1882, entering the country was fraught with anxiety, a period of detention, intense questioning, physical examinations, and always the very real fear of rejection.

The memories of the millions who passed through the port of New York's Ellis Island has been told and retold in fiction, biography and nonfiction, but the story of immigrants coming through San Francisco's Angel Island Immigration Station--Chinese, Japanese, Pacific Islanders, Russians, and even Jews leaving through the open port of Shanghai--receives its due attention in Russell Freedman's forthcoming Angel Island: Gateway to Gold Mountain (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014).

Because Asian immigration was early on limited to the American-born or relatives of American citizens whose passage through Angel Island became a memory of humiliation and fear, the story of the "other Ellis Island" is just now being told. Detainees faced arduous interrogation to determine if they were legitimate relatives, often being required to describe details like the floorplan of their home and where minor items of furniture were placed inside. Because their relatives often spent weeks or sometimes years in the Spartan confines of Angel Island, in full sight of San Francisco's Golden Gate, the nation's first organized ethnic civil rights movement also began there, and in 1943 the Chinese Exclusion law was repealed.

Closed and abandoned since 1940, Angel Island's story was repressed and nearly forgotten until a curious National Parks worker happened to venture inside one of the deserted barracks and discovered inscriptions, many of them in Chinese, some in Yiddish, Russian or German, covering most of the walls, even the stairwells, written by those who languished there. Translated, they told a new American story of the misery and hopes of those held there.

"I look around for a happy face among those who only sit in silence.

Nights are long, the pillow cold; who can comfort my solitude?

Having drunk so deeply from this well of loneliness and bitterness,

Shouldn't I just return home and learn to plow the fields."

But like the new Americans who passed through Ellis Island, the descendants of those prospective citizens of Angel Island went on to contribute greatly to their new homeland. Newbery-winning historical author Russell Freedman has provided a gripping account of coming to America in his newest nonfiction book. The period photos tell the story as well, in the grim three-tiered metal fold-down cots in the barracks, the poignant poems written on the walls, and yet in the steadfast eyes of the would-be new Americans who risked all to come. This story of Asian immigration and the early immigration rights movement has been a missing link in the story of American civil rights as a whole. Immigration continues to be an issue in public life, a subject which needs to be better understood. Aimed at middle and young adult readers with some knowledge of American history, this book is an eye-opening read and a must-have for public and school libraries.

Freedman, award-winning historian and biographer for young people, has earned starred reviews from the critics.  Kirkus Reviews says that Angel Island: Gateway to Gold Mountain "... brings depth and perspective to a dark period in American history. In this case, the walls do talk."

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