Cindy Thomson,
Ellis Island: Grace's Pictures
(Tyndale House, 2013)

It's the year 1900 on Manhattan Island, and 19-year-old Grace McCaffrey has just stepped off the boat from Ireland. And boy, does she have baggage. Most of it is not the tangible, carry-on kind. She's had a tough life so far, and she's been sent to America to get away from its difficulties and start fresh. Unfortunately, there's no switch she can flip to erase the past, especially in her mind.

At least she has referrals in New York. Soon Grace is living at a decent boarding house and is working as a housekeeper/nanny for a semi-upscale family.

On that first day on Ellis Island, a man had taken her photograph and handed her his business card. Grace becomes intrigued and thinks back to that moment often. Eventually, she buys herself a new Brownie camera and learns how to take pictures herself. Alas, this seemingly benign activity gets her into trouble with some gang toughs and members of Tammany Hall, who think Grace is deliberately documenting their illicit dealings out on the streets of downtown. The chase begins.

While the storyline follows Grace, it also follows Owen McNulty. He's an unusual individual, in that he's an honest police officer (in a time and place of unscrupulous ones). He also came from wealth and the world of business, and he chose instead to serve the public and protect the immigrants. Naturally his path frequently crosses with Grace's. But he too is being targeted by some of the "bad guys" because of his integrity. Can Owen and Grace both escape the resulting harassment and terror? And will the perpetrators be held to some sort of justice?

While the storylines here are decent and the characters are mostly likable, following them can get wearisome. It's draining to be around individuals who are almost always fretful or worrying, or who are constantly questioning and being unsure of themselves. After a while, you want to either shake some sense into them or to tell them to just grow up and figure it out. Some of the scenes in the book don't seem to go anywhere or advance the plot, which makes for additional reader frustration. The photography angle, which we've been aware of since we picked up the book and read the title, takes a while to come to true fruition. And since the genre is Christian fiction, the main characters call upon their various versions of faith to help them through situations. Sometimes this interjection feels contrived ... but in writing Christian fiction, you run that risk. At least the author didn't go the easy route and quickly force Grace and Owen into a relationship. Surely readers will want something substantial to happen between the two. But that may be a matter for a subsequent book. Or not.

Grace's Pictures is billed on the cover as "An Ellis Island Novel." This is an indication of the possibility of more episodes to come in this series. They could probably feature new characters and refer occasionally to the ones here. It would be satisfying to see Grace become more of the independent woman she has the potential to turn into, even if she has to simultaneously remain a relatively docile creature of her time and culture.

Grace's Pictures is recommended for avid readers of Christian fiction, or for anyone who likes to read turn-of-the-century immigrant stories. This book could be a step up for those who devoured episodes in the American Girls Collection or the Young American Voices series in middle school, a decade or two ago.

[ visit the author's website ]

book review by
Corinne H. Smith

6 July 2013

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