Book review of "The Long Way Home," by David Laskin

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Sunday, April 11, 2010

THE LONG WAY HOME

An American Journey From Ellis Island to the Great War

By David Laskin

Harper. 386 pp. $26.99

David Laskin quotes a New York educator named Ellwood P. Cubberley, writing in 1909 about the floodtide of immigration then slapping at American shores: "These Southern and Eastern Europeans are of a very different type from the Northern Europeans who preceded them. Illiterate, docile, lacking in self-reliance and initiative, and not possessing Anglo-Teutonic conceptions of law, order and government, their coming has corrupted our civic life."

Sound familiar? Americans have always been profoundly ambivalent about immigration. We cherish our own foreign-born ancestors and then erupt in spasms of hostility typified by modern Cubberleys such as Lou Dobbs and Pat Buchanan. In the 1840s the Know Nothing Party denounced Catholic newcomers from Germany and Ireland; in the 1940s Japanese Americans were interned as security risks. Contemporary nativists direct their animosity at Hispanics and Muslims, but the basic argument has not changed: America is now perfect. Time to pull up the gangplank. The aliens will corrupt our character and our culture.

The haters were wrong then, and they are wrong now. They totally misunderstand the essential grit and grain of America. We are never perfect, never static, never finished. We are constantly enriched by new blood, energy and ideas. As Barack Obama put it in his inaugural address, "Our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness."

In this compelling book, Laskin makes this same point by following the lives of 12 American doughboys who had been born in Europe and who then returned there to fight for their adopted country in World War I. It's an imaginative concept, and Laskin mines family legends and official documents to tell the stories of these ordinary foot soldiers from Italy and Ireland, Poland and Russia, Slovakia and Norway.

Ironically, many of them first left home to escape military service (I know this tale well -- both of my grandfathers came here fleeing the czar's army). Once here they re-created customs and communities that mirrored life in the Old Country. There's a legitimate concern today that Spanish-speaking immigrants don't join the mainstream fast enough, but that's hardly a new story. Joe Chmielewski never spoke English in Fifficktown, Pa., Laskin writes, but "there was really no need or opportunity. In the 1910s, everyone he knew or had to deal with at the mine, at home, in the tavern, in church spoke Polish." In his Yiddish-speaking Newark, N.J., neighborhood, noted Sam Goldberg, "if a dog came around he'd have to prove he was Jewish before they let him in."

These immigrants brought their loyalties as well as their languages, and their politics sometimes conflicted with official policy. The Irish hated the British, and the Jews hated the Russians, so large elements in both groups sympathized with the Germans. One American of German ancestry wrote home from the battlefields of France, "I never know when I might be shooting at one of my own cousins or uncles." These mixed feelings triggered fears that immigrants would resist the draft when it was instituted in 1917, but the reverse happened. "The most remarkable thing is how well and willingly the foreign element has responded," one government clerk reported. "They seem anxious to serve the country of their adoption."

At times, the "foreign element" had trouble carrying out their good intentions. Many were subject to verbal and even physical abuse. Boot camp meant adjusting to new foods, rituals and idioms: "For a lot of the foreign-born guys," Laskin writes, "it was like emigrating all over again." But war changed everything. It gave the foreigners a whole new identity, not just a new uniform. Laskin describes what happened when these immigrant soldiers deployed to Europe: "Back home, they were the foreigners, but when a bunch of them sat down together in a noisy smoky bar full of Aussies and Brits and French and Belgians, the dagos and yids and hunkies were all Yanks no matter how thick their accents."

Today's immigrants don't become Yanks in the trenches of France. That transformation occurs in the farmlands of Florida, the factories of Pennsylvania, the laboratories of California and, sometimes, on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. This story, like this country, never ends.

Steven V. Roberts's new book, "From Every End of This Earth," details the lives of 13 immigrant families in modern America.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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