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by Troy Soos
Kensington Books, November 2001
ISBN: 1575667673

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Troy Soos writes an outstanding series of historical mysteries involving early baseball history as well as murder. Now he has written a stand-alone which could, I expect, be billed as mainstream historical fiction. However, there is a murder, there is detection, there is a romance, and I thoroughly enjoyed the book.

The year is 1892 and the Island of Tears is Ellis Island which opened on January 1 of that year as the gateway for immigrants into the United States. Two men are especially interested in that opening day. Marshall Welk, a writer of dime novels, wants to take one of the young women who arrive at Ellis Island that day and write her story, a rags to riches story which he knows it will be. Edwin Crombie with a partner is trying to develop a motion picture camera in competition with Edison and he is there that day to photograph some of the first arrivals. Both select the same young woman, Christina van der Waals, fresh from Amsterdam.

Christina vanishes and as Webb tries to find her he uncovers the repulsive underside of the "melting pot" of 1892, the people who prey on immigrants, especially single young women, promising them jobs but putting them into sweatshops and then not releasing them until they repay the money they supposedly owe. Or, worse yet, turning them to prostitution. Families are cheated out of what little money they have and then are forced into the same kinds of jobs. Women are beaten and brutalized. To get a contemporary account of these conditions, read Jacob Riisís book, How the Other Half Lives. Here the same conditions are presented in all their horrors.

All o f this exists on the framework of corrupt politicians, an even more corrupt police force, and good solid citizens who do not want to know the truth. In his search Webb meets an uncommon woman, Rebecca Davies, whose wealthy family supports a refuge for battered women and who actually puts in time and works at this refuge.

The history is extraordinarily well done. The perception of turn-of-the-century New York greets the reader on every page. It is not the romantic idealistic picture so often given, but a realistic look at misery and travail. It is not a depressing book, however, because there is hope in all this and the idea that while one cannot reform the world, one can help one person at a time. The sense of place is powerful as well.

The characters are well developed. Rebecca and Marshall are an uncommon sort, but there were plenty of those, people who rose above the norm and accepted the challenge of making life better for others. Webb in particular is many-sided and intriguing. The story is a fascinating one and well worth your reading time.

Reviewed by Sally A. Fellows, January 2002

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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