Ellis Island, and Other Stories
At the age of thirty-five, Mark Helprin has established himself as one of the most promising and accomplished young writers on the contemporary literary scene. In addition to Ellis Island and Other Stories, he has written a novel and another collection of short stories, both of which have been widely praised. Many of his short stories, including six of the eleven in his latest collection, have been published in The New Yorker, and some of them have been selected for such distinguished anthologies as the O. Henry Prize Stories and The Best American Short Stories.
The settings of the stories in Ellis Island and Other Stories are international in scope—set in Italy, Israel, America, Germany, Switzerland, and the Indian Ocean—and they concern a variety of characters in a variety of situations. The prize piece of the collection, as the title suggests, is “Ellis Island,” a four-part novella. Like many of Helprin’s stories, this multifaceted picaresque tale has a Jewish provenance. It follows the sometimes astounding, often hilarious, and always heart-warming adventures of a young Jewish writer who arrives at Ellis Island in the early part of the twentieth century and sets out to make a life for himself in Brooklyn. The first-person narrator never reveals his true name, but no matter. The essence of his personality and character is well revealed in the various names or roles that he assumes because of expediency, whim, or circumstance in his odyssey through Ellis Island and the boroughs of Brooklyn.
He is Guido da Montefeltro, the Italian anarchist who transforms himself in the nick of time back into a slightly mad Jewish immigrant; he is an immigrant from Dublin who becomes a victim of the “Irish trick” played by the notorious James Casey; he is Hershey Moshelies, who fails as an art student but falls into the bed of a beautiful model in night school; he is Whiting Tatoon, who fails spectacularly as a fire rider on a construction crew; and, most appropriately, he is a Meshugah (an addled one) who is treated to a learned sermon/treatise on the significance of bees by Rabbi Figaro in the Saromsker Palace in Brooklyn.
The narrator’s Jewishness is an important part of the story but not the most important part. From it comes his passion, his warmth, his ambition, and his rabbinical imagination and agility of mind which can convert madness into wisdom or love into lunacy and back again. Ethnicity becomes universality through the lessons that the narrator learns from his love for the beautiful red-haired Dane, Elise, the pillar of fire who led him through Ellis Island, and from his love for Hava, the beautiful seamstress who becomes his wife. The character and experiences of this magnificent Meshugah are a humorous distillation of a brilliant culture; in his strange odyssey one can see the visionary promise of early twentieth century America and, beyond that, the potential of the human spirit for joy and sorrow, for exuberant experience and aesthetic or transcendental contemplation, for innocence, error, and growth.
Though none of the other stories in the collection match the caliber of “Ellis Island,” five of them are excellent. “Martin Bayer” and “Tamar” are moving explorations of the relationships which the imagination establishes between the real and the ideal. Both focus on the minds of sensitive Jews—one a boy, the other a man—whose views of beauty are conditioned, in different degrees of awareness, by the threat of war.
“Martin Bayer” describes the late summer vacation of an affluent Jewish family on the tip of Long Island in 1916. A precocious ten-year-old boy who has the sensitivity of an artist or...
(The entire section is 1534 words.)