Monday, February 7, 2022

Book Review: The Next Ship Home

By Jami Denison

Historical fiction often falls into two camps: The first, a period piece so specific, readers feel that they are living in that time period. The second, a novel with themes that are so timeless, the reader is reminded that humans have been dealing with the same issues over the ages. The latest historical fiction offering by Heather Webb, The Next Ship Home, definitely falls into the latter camp.

In 1902, Francesca and her sister Maria board a ship from Italy to New York. They’re on the run from their abusive father and know no one in the city, nor do they have any prospects. Meanwhile, it’s the first day of work at Ellis Island for Alma, the unmarried daughter of a German woman, whose stepfather has insisted she work at the crowded, dangerous port. Alma loves languages and her knowledge of Italian is quickly put to use to aid Francesca. When tragedy strikes the young immigrant, Alma steps in to help, and an unlikely friendship forms. But the steps that Francesca is forced to take to get off Ellis Island will come back to haunt them both.

Alma and Francesca are both heroines to root for, and their relationship changes them both. When she first goes to work at Ellis Island, Alma is frightened and a little disgusted by the immigrants. But she’s a good person from the start, and she quickly begins to realize that these people from other countries only want a chance to better their lives. Her disgust is redirected toward the corrupt workers at Ellis Island who abuse and take advantage of them. Francesca, whose bravery is on display from the get-go, becomes a role model of sort to Alma as she works hard and makes the most of her opportunities. 

While at times the narrative feels a little narrow and predictable—there isn’t a strong sense of urgency to read the next chapter—Webb really fires all cylinders with her ending, refusing to take an easy way out for herself or her characters.

So much of the environment that Webb describes in 1902 is still true today: The country’s unwelcoming attitude toward immigrants. Labor strife. The wealth gap and extreme inequality. The second-class treatment of women. It seems hard to believe that the United States is still dealing with the same issues that it grappled with over a hundred years ago. These conditions helped lead to a pandemic, a world war and a global depression. Let’s hope history doesn’t repeat itself too closely. 

Thanks to Tall Poppy Writers for the book in exchange for an honest review.

More by Heather Webb:

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