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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Meeting Kate Kerrigan, author of Ellis Island

Ellis Island by Kate Kerrigan
Published by Harper Collins, ISBN 9780062071538
Trade paperback, $13.99

Nicole, Kate Kerrigan, Diane LaRue, Cindy Thomson

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of meeting Irish author Kate Kerrigan at a luncheon hosted by Harper Collins. She was a delight, and  even baked Irish Soda Bread and Honey Bread for the luncheon, which were delicious. She shared the recipes with us, and you can find them on her blog here.

We met Kate in the lobby of the building, but I didn't recognize her because she looks so different from her author photo in Ellis Island. Her dark hair is now lighter, and it's very flattering. She warmly greeted myself, Nicole from Linus' Blanket and Cindy Thomson (and her husband) from Cindy's Writing in the lobby, and I liked her right away.

Kerrigan spoke warmly of her family in Ireland, and showed us some videos and audio tapes she made of her mother sharing family stories. We also saw her lovely writing cottage in her home in Ireland, where this book and the next two in the trilogy will be written.

I enjoyed talking with Kerrigan, and asking her questions about her novel, about Ellie Hogan, a young Irish woman who comes to America in 1920 to make money to send back to Ireland for an operation her husband needs.

Two key scenes take place on Ellis Island, in the huge building where immigrants were ushered through interviews and health inspections before being allowed into the United States. Anyone who has visited the  building, which is now a museum, will recognize these scenes that Kerrigan brings vividly to life as Ellie first comes to America.

There is a scene where one immigrant has to undergo an eye exam with a hook that lifts the eyelid. This hook is memorably on display in the museum, and if you do there, make sure to take the audio or docent tour to get the most out of your visit.

In a later scene, Ellie is waiting on the balcony looking down on the crowd to find her husband, and after standing there myself, I felt this scene was so well written. I remember wondering what it would feel like to be waiting for someone, and Kerrigan crystalizes that feeling through Ellie.

Another great scene is the one where Ellie has gotten off of Ellis Island, and is walking up Broadway to her new job. Kerrigan paints such a sensual picture of the streets of New York, all of your senses are aroused by her description, and you feel that you are walking this trip along with Ellie.

Ellie adjusts to life in New York, and betters herself by going to school and learning how to type. Although she misses her husband and faithfully sends him money, their letters become less frequent. Ellie likes her independence, and likes the niceties of New York (electricity, beautiful clothes, appliances and convenient foods).

When a tragedy forces Ellie to go back to Ireland, she is torn. She loves her family, but she has gotten used to the finer things, and now finds the poverty of Ireland nearly unbearable. Kerrigan described it as a conflict between monetary things, progress and love of family. Ellie's sense of identity is confused.

Although this story takes place in the 1920s, Ellie's story felt timeless to me. A young woman, making her way in the world, has to choose between her loyalties to her family and her wish for greater independence. Many women can relate to this.

The end of the story is surprising to me, and I can't wait to read the next two books in the trilogy, which Kerrigan said take place in New York in the 1930s and Los Angeles in the 1940s. If you liked Colm Toibin's Brooklyn, put Ellis Island on your list.

rating 4 of 5 stars


  1. Thanks again for coming, Diane! I hope you enjoyed your trip to New Orleans.

  2. Thanks for inviting me, Mary- It was very interesting hearing about Kate's experience writing Ellis Island.

  3. I really enjoyed this book and am sorry I missed the lunch at HC. I did see Kate read later in the week at the Tenement Museum and it was great to hear her share stories from Ireland. My Mom and I visited the Museum before the reading so we were really immersed in the immigrant experience that night.

  4. I really have to get to the Tenement Museum one of these days. I wanted to see Kate there, but i was in New Orleans.

  5. Another fun day for you! Thanks for the recap/highlights of the novel - I'll add ELLIS ISLAND to my wishlist!