The next book featured as part of the Immigrant Stories Challenge is David Laskin’s The Long Way Home: An American Journey from Ellis Island to the Great War. Published in 2010, Laskin’s book follows the history of 12 men, all but one foreign-born (the other was the son of immigrants), who fought for America during the first World War. Since 2014 marks the hundred year anniversary of WWI, I figured this might be the perfect time to read The Long Way Home. Remembering I had pretty good luck with Laskin’s 2004 book The Children’s Blizzard I decided to take a chance on The Long Way Home when I came across a copy one afternoon at the public library. After finishing it about a month ago, I can report I’m happy I took that chance. While it didn’t rock my world, it’s still a very good book. And when is that ever a bad thing?
Yes, I know America is a nation of immigrants but holy cow, I had no idea on the eve of the nation’s entry into WWI one-third of America’s population was either foreign-born or had at least one parent who was born overseas. (Kinda puts today’s immigration debate in whole different perspective, doesn’t it?) The result was an army that was 20 percent foreign-born with some divisions having dozens of languages spoken. (Legend has it the language barrier was so significant, at least during basic training, when one drill Sargent sneezed five to six recruits came forward, thinking he’d called out their names.) So many Jews were conscripted that for the first time in history the Army had to recruit Rabbis to serve as chaplains.
There was also the question of loyalty. With so many immigrants and sons of immigrants drafted to fight the war, American leaders civilian and military nervously wondered if the troops would unquestionably serve their newly adopted country or instead secretly sympathize with their former countrymen on the other side of the front lines. There was also the question of who was a potential enemy alien and who wasn’t, complicated by the multinational make-up of some of the belligerent countries. Czechs, Slovaks and Croats were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Poles could be found living within the empires of Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary. Lastly, Jewish communities could be found throughout Eastern and Central Europe. Where would the young draftees loyalties lie?
Laskin does answer these kind of questions. He does so by chronicling the histories of these remarkable 12 men, weaving them together into a tapestry that provides a pretty vivid look at America’s relatively short but bloody involvement in World War I. Overcoming prejudice and language barriers, all within the greater context of one of history’s most devastating armed conflict, these men would earn the respect of friend and foe alike. This is a story definitely worth telling, and I’m glad Laskin elected to do so.