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The Next Ship Home: A Novel of Ellis Island
Author:Heather Webb

The Next Ship Home: A Novel of Ellis Island

Heather Webb

For Kaia and Nicolas.

   May you always know who you are and that you are loved.

“What, indeed, is a New Yorker? Is he Jew or Irish? Is he English or German? Is he Russian or Polish? He may be something of all these, and yet he is wholly none of them… The change he undergoes is unmistakable. New York, indeed, resembles a magic cauldron. Those who are cast into it are born again.”

—Charles Whibley, American Sketches, 1908

Journalist urges government to intervene on behalf of Italians at condemned Ellis Island

James Mackle reports. Manhattan Chronicle.

March 1, 1902—After a recent trip to New York, journalist Roberto Giamatti returned to his native Rome outraged. Though his visit to the United States included time with his newly emigrated family, his main intent was to report on steamship conditions and their employees, as well as those conditions at Ellis Island.

Mr. Giamatti witnessed gross maltreatment of his countrymen, and especially of young Italian women passing through the halls of the infamous station.

After publishing a series of articles abroad detailing his findings, Mr. Giamatti urges the American government to intervene on behalf of those who will, one day, become citizens of the United States.

Commissioner Fitchie of Ellis Island was not available for comment.


Crossing the Atlantic in winter wasn’t the best choice, but it was the only one. For days, the steamship had cowered beneath a glaring sky and tossed on rough seas as if the large vessel weighed little. Francesca gripped the railing to steady herself. Winds tore at her clothing and punished her bared cheeks, reminding her how small she was, how insignificant her life. It was worth it, to brave the elements for as long as she could stand them. Being out of doors meant clean, bright air to banish the disease from her lungs and scrub away the rank odors clinging to her clothes.

Too many of the six hundred passengers belowdecks had become sick. She tried not to focus on the desperate ones, clutching their meager belongings and praying Hail Marys in strained whispers. She wasn’t like them, she told herself, even while her body betrayed her and she trembled more each day as they sailed farther from Napoli. Yet despite the unknown that lay ahead, she would rather die than turn back. As the ship slammed against wave after unruly wave, she thought she might die after all, drift to the bottom of a fathomless dark sea.

She couldn’t believe she’d done it—left Sicilia, her home, and all she’d ever known. It had taken every ounce of her courage, but she and Maria had managed to break free. Dear, fragile Maria. Swallowing hard, Francesca looked out at the vast tumult of water and pushed a terrible thought far from her mind. Maria would recover. She had to. Francesca refused to imagine life without her sister.

She tucked her hands under her arms for warmth. Everywhere she looked, her gaze met gray, a slippery color that shimmered silver and foamed with whitecaps or gathered into charcoal clouds. Already she longed for the wide expanse of sea surrounding her island home in a perfect blue-green embrace, the rainbow of purples and oranges that streaked the sunset sky, the craggy landscape, the scent of citrus and sunshine. She wrapped her arms around her middle, holding herself as if she might break apart. Reminiscing about what she once cherished was foolish. Somehow, she had to find things to like about New York.

Freedom from him, if nothing else.

She would never again meet the fists of her drunken papa. At the memory of his bulging eyes and the way his face flowered purple, she rubbed the bruise on her arm that had not quite healed. She would no longer spend her days stealing so he might buy another bottle of Amaro Averna or some other liquor. Paolo Ricci could do it himself. He could tumble from his fishing boat into the sea for all she cared.

A shiver ran over her skin and rattled her teeth. Like it or not, it was time to go belowdecks. As she weaved through the brave souls who paid no heed to the wind despite the cost to warmth, she wondered briefly if any first or second class passengers had defied the cold on the upper-class decks overhead. The ship was tiered and divided into three platforms; the two above her were smaller and set back so a curious lady or gentleman might lean over the railing and peer down at steerage. As if they were a circus of exotic animals.

Francesca descended the ladder into the bowels of the ship. The air thickened into a haze of stink and rot, and the clamor of hundreds of voices floated through the cramped corridors until she arrived at the large room designated for women only. She passed row upon row of metal cots stacked atop each other, filled with strangers. Some women lounged on the floor in their threadbare dresses and boots with heels worn to the quick. Their eyes were haunted, their wan figures gaunt with hunger. One woman scratched at an open sore; another smelled of urine and sweat and squatted against the wall of the ship with a rosary in hand, pausing briefly in her prayer to swipe at a rat with greasy fur, driven by hunger, the same as her. The same as they all were.

Francesca tried not to linger on their faces and moved through the room to her sister, who lay prostrate on her cot, and reached for her hand.

“You’re so cold,” Maria said through cracked lips, clutching her sister’s hand. “You’ll catch your death, Cesca. Promise me you’ll be careful.”

Heart in her throat, Francesca swept her sister’s matted curls from her face. Death was not a word she wanted to entertain. The terror they’d harbored since they’d sneaked away from their home in the middle of the night, that overwhelmed her each time she considered the unknown before them, was bad enough. Death had no place here.

“Nothing can catch me now. We’re too close.”

Maria smiled and a glimpse of her cheerful nature shone in her dark eyes. “That hard head serves you at last.”

Francesca forced a smile, desperate to hide the concern from her face. Maria had always been frail, easily ill and quickly bruised, yet still she glowed with some internal light. Often, Francesca imagined her as a fairy, an angelic creature not of this earth. She laid a hand on Maria’s brow. Her skin burned with fever, and sweat soaked through her gown. Maria had fallen ill on the first leg of their voyage from Palermo to Napoli and had worsened each day since. Francesca had worried the captain wouldn’t allow them to board, but she and Maria had passed the inspection rapidly—after Francesca paid an unspoken price in a back room on a narrow cot. But they were on their way and that was what mattered now.