You would be surprised how many times people ask me that question. Well, maybe you aren’t surprised. Maybe you would ask it yourself because you are curious how an author decides what to write about. Fair enough. But it surprises me because…why wouldn’t I? Ellis Island is iconic. Immigrants to the island passed by The Statue of Liberty and thought about what it would mean to live in America. It’s American pride in our heritage, in the struggles our ancestors endured to come here.
I Am Not From This Tradition
So far as I have been able to research, I have no roots coming through Ellis Island. The first line in which I was able to trace an immigrant ancestor marked his immigration from Ireland as coming in 1771. Ellis Island opened in 1892. The next line I traced back to the Massachusetts Bay Company. He came over from Wales around 1640. I’ve also been told of a possible connection to the Mayflower. There are more lines to trace but it seems pretty obvious I’m not going to find an Ellis Island ancestor.
So this answers another question I often get. Grace and Annie and Sofia–the main characters of my books in the Ellis Island series–are not based on my ancestors. So, why write about Ellis Island? I believe those immigrants, the ones who came over during the late 19th century and early 20th century, contributed greatly to the world we live in today and I wanted to honor their sacrifices by helping people to remember.
They Built America
The railroads, the Industrial Revolution, modern roadways, the Unions, Women’s Rights, motion pictures, subways…I could go on forever but most of these things were built and created and invented by Ellis Island immigrants or by those who came in the decades right before the immigration center was built. So, they are a part of all of America, a part of the past of all of us.
New York City History
Another answer is the fascinating history of that era in New York. It was definitely something I was interested in. The vast divide between the poor and the rich. The corruption of the police department. The fledging publishing industry. The melting pot of first and second generation immigrants. Sofia’s Tune will end this series, and I’ll feel a little sad to let it go. I’ll probably be reading other novels set in that era and continue to think about those Hawkins House girls.
Are you interested in Ellis Island? Tell me why. 🙂
Getting a Historical Perspective
History geeks like me are always thinking about what a place looked like a hundred or two hundred years ago. For example, ever since I heard that the area around Plain City, Ohio, had been a hunting ground for Indians because it was where the buffalo roamed, I think about that when I’m driving past on I70. It’s so flat there, and I can just imagine it.
I discovered a children’s book years ago when I went to hear the author speak at a library that gives perspective. Perhaps it’s just how writers think, I’m not sure. It’s called Who Came Down That Road by George Ella Lyon. It explores the fact that a road or path has probably been used by people and animals for centuries.
Historical Novelists Are Rightful Daydreamers
We live in the past, yet we’re writing for today’s readers. Can you see how that can make us a little bit…conflicted? (You thought I was going to say crazy, didn’t you?) This is why many novelists have “Do Not Disturb the Writer” signs on their doors. It’s a delicate state of sanity requiring much concentration!
Similar to the sign Jerry Jenkins has outside his office.
Why You Too Should Envision the Past
We’ve all heard the adage, those who do not learn from the past are destined to repeat its mistakes–or some version of it. I believe it is usually attributed to Edmund Burke. But whoever said it was correct. We need to know what came before so we can move forward with wisdom and thoughtfulness.
So if you’re convinced, here’s a video I think you’ll enjoy. I have this kind of thing going on in my head every day. Let me know if this makes sense to you. 😉
One thing that surprised me when I visited New York City was the plethora of parks. I guess I had thought Central Park was the only one. Some of the parks in Manhattan are very small, but they offer respites of green space and refreshing fountains that city dwellers need. Battery Park, Washington Square, Market Square, Gramercy Park, Hudson River Park…Wikipedia says there are 74 parks in Manhattan!
The development of the city has a long history. Open spaces came and went over the centuries. In Book Two of the Ellis Island Series the male protagonist is a postman, so naturally I was interested in the main post office building of the time. What I discovered surprised me. Not that the building of that era no longer exists, but that it was so sorely disfavored from the time it was erected in 1880 to when it was demolished in 1939 in favor of extending City Hall Park. The main post office was considered “old fashioned” and an eyesore on the point of Broadway, Park Row, and Chambers Street.
|In this photograph the building looks majestic.
|Maybe it’s the coloring or the perspective, but this photograph causes me to see the complaint. See the wee bit of green peeking out behind the left side of the building? That’s the hidden City Hall Park.
It was designed by architect Arthur Mullet and dubbed “Mullet’s Monstrosity.” The post office was built in the style of the Second Empire Baroque. It’s not that there weren’t any other buildings of that style. One example is the Waldorf-Astoria, built later in 1893. At the time it was “the talk of the town.” Perhaps New Yorkers thought the style better suited to a luxury hotel than a post office. However, this building (pictured below) was demolished ten years before Mullet’s post office.
A 1912 New York Times article voiced concern that a proposal in Congress to demolish the Mullet Post Office might fail. Plans were to extend City Hall Park through the spot where the building stood.
“The Mullet Post Office has always been an architectural eyesore, and has, from the first, been unsatisfactory to the Postal Service and the Federal Courts also beneath its roof…The restoration of City Hall Park as a civic centre, with no superfluous building to mar its parklike aspect, so that old City Hall could remain as a historic landmark amid appropriate surroundings has been looked forward to…”
The issue, of course, was that it was Federal property that the city wanted back. No doubt that’s what took so long. New Yorkers wanted the building gone almost as soon as it went up. Perhaps the fact that it stood on a point made it too overbearing.
The deed was done, however. Here’s an early photograph from 1939.
And here it is today.
So what do you think? Is the park better or do you like the elaborate old building?