Angel Island: Gateway to Gold Mountain

Jacket• Grade Range: 5-8.
• Diversity related title
• Author Russell Freedman
• Angel Island: Gateway to Gold Mountain
• Publisher:Boston, Clarion Books
• 2014
• 81 pages.
• ISBN: 978-0-547-90378-1
• Awards: Richie’s Picks, Just published in 2014.
• Author’s website: the author does not appear to have a website.

A park ranger’s discovery of Chinese calligraphic poems etched into the walls of the derelict Angel Island detention station sets in motion the preservation of the remains of the Ellis Island of the West. Freedman tells the larger story of immigration on the West Coast and the shameful history of institutional and individual discrimination against Chinese immigrants.

Freedman begins the story with Weiss’s enthusiastic discovery: ” I looked around and shined my flashlight up and I could see that the entire wall was covered with calligraphy. And that was what blew me away…People had carved the stuff on every square inch of wall space.” An immigrant himself, Weiss identified with those who had been held in the immigration-processing center and, alarmed by its planned demolition, alerted a former professor connected to the Asian community, which then rallied support for its preservation.

What makes the story particularly poignant was how close we came to losing, not only the poems-which were considered graffiti, but also this most significant reminder of an important, and very uncomfortable piece of American history. Freedman summarizes the story of Asian immigration clearly, concisely and well, making it accessible to middle school children. He gives background on the racism facing Asian immigrants, particularly Chinese, citing the Chinese Exclusion Act: the only immigration law to target a specific ethnicity. He describes how the Gold Rush drew immigrants hoping for a better life and how whites resented Chinese competition in mining, and after the economic downturn in 1873, resented them even more for their willingness to work hard for low wages. It is understandable that governments and labor groups don’t like to recall their role in Asian persecution, but Freedman notes that Asians, humiliated by the aggressive screening and long detentions at Angel Island, were similarly unwilling to remember a period of history that they found shameful.

Freedman points out how much Chinese immigrants contributed to the United States, helping to build not only railroads but also farming infrastructure. He takes pains to point out the ways they fought back against racist laws. The resistance to the Geary Law, that required all Chinese to carry identity cards, is considered the largest act of civil disobedience in U.S. History. While he mentions some of the violence against Chinese: the L.A. riots, he does not emphasize how pervasive the violence was, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, and how it dramatically changed settlement patterns; Chinese were effectively driven into large urban ghettos that afforded protection in numbers. Nor in this slim book does Freedman take the time to fully explore the fascinating subject of the gender imbalance among Asian immigrants and the huge problem of forced prostitution that spawned, and then was reinforced by, punitive laws. He does touch briefly on the practice of paper sons and daughters that allowed Chinese to enter on assumed identities after the earthquake destroyed San Francisco’s records.

His chapters on the history of the Angel Island station broaden the scope and include other immigrant ethnicities: Russians: fleeing the revolution, Japanese brides: travelling for arranged marriages, and South Asian freedom fighters. The handsomely produced book has many wonderful historic photographs that put faces on these large movements of people. Freedman helps personalize the history: including many first person accounts from those who passed through Angel Island.

Front matter includes contents. Back Matter includes source notes divided by chapter. A note clarifies the sources of quotations, providing a bibliographic key, and notes the translation source of poems. A selected bibliography does not contain annotations or indications of which books are suited for children. Acknowledgements thank a California librarian who suggested the topic. Picture credits and an index conclude the book. No websites are included.

This book is an excellent start to a fascinating topic. It does not attempt to cover all the aspects of Asian immigration. I wish Freedman had included kid friendly sources for further reading such as William Daley’s The Chinese Americans, the Hoobler’s The Chinese American Family Album, Emmey Werner’s Passages to America: Oral histories of Child Immigrants from Ellis Island and Angel Island, and the child friendly, if disturbing, book of period cartoons: Choy’s The Coming Man: 19th Century American Perceptions of the Chinese. There are also many excellent websites devoted specifically to Angel Island and its poetry:
http://www.aiisf.org/, which offers a video virtual tour, has stories of immigrants who passed through the station and notes upcoming events.
http://teacher.scholastic.com/activities/asian-american/angel_island/index.htm tells the story of one 7 year-old Chinese girl’s experience immigrating to America through Angel Island.
http://www.cetel.org/angel_poetry.html Reproduces a handful of the poems.
http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/a_f/angel/angel.htm
A site devoted to the poetry and its history.

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