The Last Days of Ellis Island, by Gaëlle Josse

World Editions, 2020

Winner of the European Union Prize for Literature

Shortlisted for the 2021 French American Translation prize

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.

‘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.’ —Publishers Weekly

‘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.’  —Shelf Awareness

‘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.’ —Asymptote

‘Gripping…The Last Days of Ellis Island is an absorbing novel in which beloved dreams are fast to shatter.’ —Foreword Reviews

‘A novel that resonates powerfully with the tragic fates of today’s migrants.’ —France-Amérique

‘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. The courage of the migrants is brought alive through all the noise, dirt, fear and melancholy.’ —Irish Independent

‘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 Islandimagines 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