Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Set Apart

There are those nonfiction books in children's literature with every page turn, as an adult, you wonder how this information has escaped being a part of your general knowledge.  As you complete chapter after chapter you become captivated by the extent of the story, a true story, unfolding.  When the covers are closed for the final time, the title completed, you are filled (yet again) with an intense sense of gratitude for the author's commitment to making this information available to young people.

During most historical discussions of immigration to the United States, one of the first places called to mind is Ellis Island.  Did you know the largest island in San Francisco Bay was a temporary stopping place for more than five hundred thousand immigrants, many Chinese, for at least three decades?  Angel Island: Gateway To Gold Mountain (Clarion Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) written by Russell Freedman takes us back in time to those events before, during and after the opening of the Angel Island Immigration Station.

Alexander Weiss had just started his job as a California state park ranger on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay when he came across an old abandoned building. 

On that day in May 1970 Alexander Weiss discovered stories.  The walls inside the building in many rooms were covered with rows of carved or painted poems.  Most of the writing was Chinese but other immigrants had left their words.

Realizing their historical significance he told park officials but they deemed the writing of little value.  The building was set to be demolished.  Weiss then appealed to a professor he had at San Francisco State College who had ties to the history of Angel Island and the Asian American community.  A seed had been planted and it started to grow.

In the next eight chapters we are introduced first to those things which lured the Chinese away from their country to the United States; the California gold rush and the building of the Central Pacific Railroad are two examples.  Even when the amount of gold diminished and the railroad was completed, they stayed to work.  Their earnings here could do much when sent home.  Prejudice and unfair legislation seemed to grow as the number of Chinese immigrants increased.

By the early 1900s Chinese arrivals in San Francisco were placed in detention and questioned before being admitted to the country.  In 1910 the Angel Island Immigration Station was opened.  Frightening voyages were endured to get to the United States.  It's as if the fear continued upon their arrival.  Men and women were separated at Angel Island Immigration Station; families broken apart.  Then came the waiting; sometimes days, weeks or months passed before their case was heard.

Detainees were subjected to humiliating physical examinations and lengthy interrogations.  Failure to pass one or the other was sometimes a matter of life or death.  More tales of immigrants from other countries are shared as are their reasons for making a new life in the United States; brides arriving because of arranged marriages, persons seeking asylum or those who wished to garner support in this country for their cause.  A fire and time evoke big changes in the treatment of immigrants from China and for Angel Island.

Even after two complete readings, this book is no less compelling.  Russell Freedman is a true master of nonfiction writing.  He hooks readers with Alexander Weiss's observations revealed in the first chapter; you want to know about the people who wrote on those walls. (You also want to know if Alexander Weiss and the others are successful.)

Exhaustive research is evident on each page as he takes you to the past.  Primary sources, personal statements, are woven into the narrative in support of the facts.  Transcriptions of the poems, the writings on the walls, bring those people's lives into your presence.  You can't help but develop an emotional attachment to them as you gain an understanding of what they experienced.  Here is a single passage followed by a poem.

The voyage took about three weeks.  Often the seas were rough, with "waves as big as mountains." Some passengers were seasick the entire time.  They lingered in their bunks, ate little, and had to wash themselves with seawater.

For more than twenty days I fed on wind and tasted waves.
With luck, I arrived safely in the United States.
I thought I could land in a few days.
How was I to know that I would become a prisoner suffering in this wooden building?

When you remove the dust jacket, the book case is a rusty-red heavy paper cover.  The only adornment is a small gold seal in the center toward the top.  This same seal holds each of the chapter numbers in the book.

Actual black and white photographs (close-up) of the rows of words on the walls are pictured on the opening and closing endpapers.  Other writing appears faintly in gray on several important pages in the body of the title.  The insertion of numerous black and white photographs enhances the narrative.

Readers will feel a deep respect for all people who passed through Angel Island: Gateway To Gold Mountain.  Their courage and determination is undeniable.  Russell Freedman has written an unforgettable title everyone should read.

Included within the eighty-one pages of this book are several pages of source notes, a selected bibliography, and acknowledgments.  Follow this link to the publisher's website to read an excerpt. Here is a link to Angel Island Discussion Guide by Russell Freedman.  This third link takes you to the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation website.

Each Wednesday I enjoy adding my review to the list at Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by Alyson Beecher.  It's a great place to add more nonfiction titles to your  reading list.


  1. Margie - Thank you for sharing about this book. I definitely feel there are certain gaps in my knowledge of history and this is one of them. I am adding it to my TBR now.

    1. You're welcome, Alyson. I understand what you mean about gaps in historical knowledge. I know once you have read this title you will agree that it is a very important book.