By Peter Morton Coan
Prometheus Books, $26.00, 378 pages

Faye Lundsky moved from Russia to the United States in 1898 when she was 5 years old. Celebrated chef Jacques Pepin moved from France to the United States in 1959 at the age of 23. Every immigrant story is remarkably different and yet notably reminiscent of so many of our ancestral pasts, and author Peter Morton Coan lets their voices ring through nicely in his compilation titled Toward a Better Life: America’s New Immigrants in Their Own Words, from Ellis Island to the Present.

“The coyote found me. I was at the border because that was my job: to jump the border. I tried early in the morning; I tried in the afternoons, midnight. Then one day this guy came and said, “Do you want to cross the border?” And I said, “Yeah.”

While the writing in Toward a Better Life is not particularly memorable, the stories and occasional photos are. Coan organizes his book by decade, beginning with the 1890s, moving forward through the early 2000s. The oral histories are honest, raw and worthy of our attention. Steve Keschl, for example, emigrated from Austria in 1957 at the age of 30, and served as a doorman for more than fifty consecutive years at an apartment building in New York City: “I was born in a straw house, in a village called Szentpeterfa, right on the Austrian border but on the Hungarian side,” Keschl tells us. “It used to be Austria, and then it fell back to Hungary. So I see myself as more Austrian than Hungarian.” With histories such as Keschl’s, this book draws the hotbed immigration topic down to a human level where all of us can relate, where all of us can grow.

Reviewed by Jennie A. Harrop