My first encounter with Mark Helprin was his long novel, Winter's Tale. I thought it was perfect: glorious and mysterious, realistic and magical, funny and fantastic and wondrous and sad. It was almost too much of a good thing; sort of like chocolate decadence topped with mocha ice-cream and drenched in hot fudge sauce.
The stories in Ellis Island and Other Stories offer the same enticing overdose of goodness but in smaller doses. Lest you be thrown off by the cover or the title, these stories are definitely not history or even historical fiction. They are not exclusively about immigrants, Europe or the War, although threads of these subjects do run through them.
The title story, Ellis Island is the longest and the last. It is about the Ellis Island and immigration, of course, but it is also fantastic fantasy complete with a wonderful machine that melts the snow from the streets supported only by its own jets of fire, the Saromsker Rabbi and his glorious sermon on bees, the lovely Hava, and Elise, whose hair is nothing less than a pillar of fire. Of the eleven stories, Ellis Island comes closest to Winter's Tale in its spirit of fantasy, although A Vermont Winter best describes the perfection of a deep Northeastern snow. As in Winter's Tale, in Ellis Island, Helprin is not averse to destroying beautiful things for the sake of a larger good, even if the logic of his narrative does not demand that he do so. But that, you see, is Helprin; for him death is just another part of art.
All of these stories are brilliant and all of them are beautiful. In The Schreuderspitze, a photographer deals with tragedy in the luminous beauty of the Alps; in Letters from the Samantha, questions of humanity and guilt are dealt with on an iron-hulled sailing ship in 1879; in Martin Bayer, we get to know a small boy on the eve of war; in North Light and A Room of Frail Dancers, we glimpse the devastating effects of battle on soldiers. La Volpaia is wonderful, wise and witty and Tamar is nothing if not lovely in the extreme. White Gardens and Palais de Justice defy any sort of description; you simply must read them and then savor them yourself.
Anyone who has read any of Helprin's other works knows he certainly has a way with words. Here are words from the end of Tamar that not only describe the story's beautiful seventeen year old protagonist, but serve to sum up this volume as a whole: Perhaps things are most beautiful when they are not quite real; when you look upon a scene as an outsider; and come to possess it in its entirety and forever; when you live in the present with the lucidity and feeling of memory; when for want of connection, the world deepens and becomes art.
These stories are nothing if they are not art.