Book Review for “The Next Ship Home” by Heather Webb.
Summary: “Ellis Island, 1902. Francesca arrives on the shores of America, her sights set on a better life than the one she left in Italy. That same day, aspiring linguist Alma reports to her first day of work at the immigrant processing center. Ellis, though, is not the refuge it first appears thanks to President Roosevelt’s attempts to deter crime. Francesca and Alma will have to rely on each other to escape its corruption and claim the American dreams they were promised. A thoughtful historical inspired by true events, this novel probes America’s history of prejudice and exclusion—when entry at Ellis Island promised a better life but often delivered something drastically different, immigrants needed strength, resilience, and friendship to fight for their futures.”
Age: Adult; Genres: Literary, Women, Fiction; Settings: Historical, USA – New York; Other Categories: Novel, Biographical, Immigration, Feminism, Romance.
Considering the waves of xenophobia across the world these days, including in the US, the topic of this book is particularly timely, but it’s also an evergreen one. Whenever a person leaves their homeland to attempt a new life in a different country, they’re always going to be viewed with skepticism by the veteran residents and citizens. This book takes place soon after the turn of the 20th century, when the US was in the midst of a huge influx in migration (something like 15 million), and yet, I couldn’t help wondering if refugees and immigrants to the US these days might be victims to the same types of corruption and abuse that those who passed through Ellis Island were subjected to back then. Food for thought, for sure.
I must say that this one was a touch rough to begin with – as if Webb had a hard time figuring out how to get the two main characters to the spot where they connected and then from there to the beginning of the real story. Because of that, it was a touch disjointed and confusing to start with, but this cleared up quickly, about 10-15% into the book. Thankfully, by that time you’ll already be somewhat invested in these two women, and you’ll want to read further. I should also mention that this book, unlike Webb’s previous novels, doesn’t focus on any single real-life person or personality, despite it being based on true events. However, some of the more minor characters are based on real people. Because of this, I think I felt a bit less connected to Alma and Francesca than I have felt with some of her other main protagonists, who were real women. This made me think that this allowed Webb to increase the romance factor, since she had bit more leeway to include that than she did with real historical figures.
Admittedly, this isn’t an easy subject for a work of fiction, and I’m wondering if Webb found it difficult to write as well. This is mostly because, while I liked both Alma and Francesca, the more I read, the more I found Alma to be enigmatic, and I wasn’t sure that Webb was as consistent with how she acted. I was also a bit frustrated at how slowly Alma evolved and grew. On the other hand, Francesca was portrayed as more stable, and although her own development was also on the slow side, it didn’t seem to waiver along the way. Despite this, by the time you get to the end of this book, you’ll see how Webb brings both of them to new places in their lives, and how they’re each ready to begin new chapters for themselves.
One of the interesting ways that Webb uses to further the plot in this book is with excerpts of fictional news articles. These articles are all about investigations into the corrupt actions of the staff on Ellis Island (based on real New York Times pieces). The importance of these articles is that they are able to fill us in on things that took place outside of these character’s small world. Had Webb not devised this mechanic, we might have been subjected to extraneous discussions which would have surely detracted from the essence of the story, so kudos to Webb for this.
Finally, I want to say that I truly appreciated how Webb concluded this novel, in that she didn’t tie everything up overly neatly. We know that none of these characters had easy lives before this story begins, and we can assume that they’ll probably struggle in the future, but we are still left hopeful that they’ll all succeed. All told, I believe telling the stories of these immigrants from America’s past was a difficult task, and I can praise Webb for stepping up to the plate to tell the them. While this isn’t my favorite of her solo novels (that’s reserved for Rodin’s Lover, with The Phantom’s Apprentice a very close second), I still enjoyed it very much. I can honestly say that I would recommend this to historical fiction lovers who want to read something about (a less than positive, but still important piece of) American history from the beginning of the 20th century. Therefore, I think this novel deserves a healthy four out of five stars!
Sourcebooks Landmark will release “The Next Ship Home” by Heather Webb on February 8, 2022. This book is (or will be) available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, The Book Depository UK and Book Depository US (free worldwide delivery), Booksamillion.com, iTunes (iBooks and audiobooks), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org and UK.Bookshop (to support independent bookshops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) or an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley.