Winner of the European Union Prize for Literature
New York, November 3, 1954. In a few days, the immigration inspection station on Ellis Island will close its doors forever. John Mitchell, an officer of the Bureau of Immigration, is the guardian and last resident of the island. As Mitchell looks back over forty-five years as gatekeeper to America and its promise of a better life, he recalls his brief marriage to beloved wife Liz, and is haunted by memories of a transgression involving Nella, an immigrant from Sardinia. Told in a series of poignant diary entries, this is a story of responsibility, love, fidelity, and remorse.
November 24, 2020
1. How successful do you think Josse is in evoking the detail and atmosphere of the station at Ellis Island? Did you feel taken back to the time and place?
2. What do you think of the atmospheric and dreamy style used by Josse? How does it make you feel?
3. We see the narrator recounting his past life, but not necessarily involved in m/any actions in the present. What do you imagine him to spend these last days doing when he isn’t writing in his diary? What sort of character do you imagine him to have?
4. Did your opinion of him change drastically throughout the course of the novel? Were you surprised at his behavior, or maybe at his reactions to his own behavior?
5. What do you think happened to Nella after leaving the station? Can you imagine her next few months, or even years? Where do you think she is now?
6. Have you or any of your family been affected my immigration/emigration? If so, how?
7. Or perhaps you even had ancestors that passed directly through the Ellis Island station itself. If so, how do you feel about Josse’s fictionalization of their experience?
8. How far do you think we have come from the events narrated in the novel? Thinking about ideas such as nation-building, immigration, alienation – what do you think has changed and what has stayed the same?
9. At the end of the book, Josse gives a little bit of insight into her visit to Ellis Island; she describes her shock and “vertigo” at being in that particular place. Have you ever been overwhelmed by such a sense of “placeness,” perhaps at a site of personal, national, or international history? If so, could you describe your experience?
10. What do you think Josse’s intentions were in writing this novel?
11. What did you think of the ending to the story?
Praise for The Last Days of Ellis Island
“Josse powerfully evokes the spirit of the ‘huddled masses’ who landed on America’s shores while creating a memorable portrait of a man torn between his commitment to his difficult job and the longings of his heart. Duty and desire clash in the melancholy reminiscences of a former Ellis Island immigration officer.”
Kirkus, *Starred Review*
“French novelist Josse’s melancholy English-language debut looks at the last few days in 1954 before Ellis Island was officially shuttered as a port of entry into the U.S. (…) Josse’s powerful work finds the human heart within a career bureaucrat.”
“Hushed and haunted…Natasha Lehrer’s translation, from the French, captures both a tragic poetry and the bureaucrat diarist’s commitment to formality…Josse’s portrait is pained and unsparing but always empathetic, both to the immigrants who suffered such horrors and to the merely human officials given power over them.”
“In The Last Days of Ellis Island, Josse masterfully creates a detailed world from what has been excluded. ‘Insider’ and ‘outsider’ are reversed, and the mainland of America is distant, unknown…This writing, in the vein of unadulterated confession, is charged with urgency from its opening lines, questioning what truly makes a home—ultimately it is people, names, and relationships that crowd John’s memories. His—and Josse’s—stories of Ellis Island are complex and conflicted, beautifully capable of capturing simultaneously the varied spectrums of courage, suffering, and hope.”
“Gripping…The Last Days of Ellis Island is an absorbing novel in which beloved dreams are fast to shatter.”
“A novel that resonates powerfully with the tragic fates of today’s migrants.”
“Engaging…wistful and, at times, disturbing.”
Christian Science Monitor
“Josse’s portrait of a conflicted man weighing up his life’s joys and regrets is poignant and affecting, and a stark beauty shines out from its melancholy, sombre prose.”
The Herald Scotland
“There is a lot packed into this slim book…the language is lyrical and the translation never jars, though the lack of variation in sentence structure is a minor irritant. The courage of the migrants is brought alive through all the noise, dirt, fear and melancholy.”
“I devoured this gem of a novel, which manages to perfectly capture both a singular moment in time and an entire universe of hope, longing and heartbreak. Brilliantly constructed and beautifully told, The Last Days of Ellis Island is a timeless—and timely—exploration of compassion and regret.”
Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, author of The Nest
“Intimate, alluring and at times haunting, The Last Days of Ellis Island imagines the closing hours of Ellis Island’s existence as a gateway for the hopeful through the eyes of its last caretaker. Josse examines with care how life, no matter where you spend it, is a weave of wonderful moments and sad ones; moments we are insanely grateful for and moments we wish with everything within that we could take back. Eloquently and skillfully rendered.”
Susan Meissner, bestselling author of A Fall of Marigolds
“The Last Days of Ellis Island is a tragic story of a man who spends forty-five years working as an immigration official on Ellis island. Josse masterfully weaves this moving story of love and loss around the larger historical context of the massive wave of immigration arriving in the U.S. in the early 1900s. Beautifully written, The Last Days of Ellis Island is compelling historical fiction with a dash of magical realism added in.”
Vincent J. Cannato, author of American Passage: The History of Ellis Island
“The story is both historically and emotionally rich”
World Translations Review
“A novel that explores the nostalgia, loneliness, guilt, and conflicted patriotism of the (fictitious) last American who worked at the facility.”
New York Journal of Books
“Combining real and fictional events, Gaëlle Josse has written a text as visceral as it is melancholy and vibrant.”
“With precise and barbed language, Gaëlle Josse allows us to experience a slice of American history through the movements of a soul preyed upon by its demons. Masterly and urgent!”
Librairie, Pages après pages
“Gaëlle Josse visits Ellis Island and constructs an intimate, collective geography, the story of one man intertwined with those of thousands of others. She rejects exaggeration and pathos, instead embracing the joy of invention and facing the crudeness of what happened head-on.”
“It’s always somewhat pointless to attempt categorization, especially in the impalpable and subjective domain of artistic creation. However, can’t we call The Last Days of Ellis Island the most beautiful text Gaëlle Josse has ever written, one in which the alchemy of the preceding ones reaches, on a completely different subject, a kind of completion?”
“This is the story of the last day of the last guardian of Ellis Island, a place that has for long been the one entryway to the American Dream for thousands of impoverished immigrants. Don’t miss this beautiful novel – full of emotion, memory, and vigor.”
“You let yourself be swept along by a narrative that gently oscillates between the supernatural and the unnerving. This literary season’s little jewel.”
“A very beautiful novel… about those whom one forgets to thank, those who, because they have been invisible, no longer now how to take back their existence.”
“What is Gaëlle Josse’s secret? Every time, we are delighted by her work, and yet this novel has nothing in common with her previous books… The author, in a consistently exquisite style, gives us a work that is not only well-researched and passionate, but also melancholic, and of incomparable power.”
“Allows Gaëlle Josse to blend invented emotions and historical truth in a beautiful manner.”
Hommes & Migrations
“It’s hard not to become John Mitchell during the reading. Gaëlle Josse writes his diary for the last nine working days on Ellis Island with a strong sense of presence and credibility.”
“A highly meaningful effort to give voice to people whose destiny has long been forgotten.”