David Laskin's latest, "The Long Way Home: An American Journey From Ellis Island to the Great War," reads with the heart-quickening pace of a novel as he focuses his gaze on a band of real-life characters who emigrated to the United States in the years just before World War I. Laskin's cast hailed from places as far-flung as Russia, Norway, southern Italy, Ireland and Slovakia. Expecting to find streets paved with gold, the newly arrived were disappointed by the prospects l'America held for them: back-breaking work on railroads and bridges or down lung-blackening coal shafts. No matter. They took to the work with the stiff upper lip of a bygone era. When war came, they, too, answered Woodrow Wilson's call to arms and went "over there," even if it meant fighting against brothers, fathers and former countrymen.
Laskin's great genius for creating affection for long-dead heroes lies in his tireless research. He interviewed elderly subjects, delved into archives and sifted through dizzying amounts of family correspondence. As the war effort got off the ground, it was clear to officers what a unique problem they faced in training such a disparate group of conscripts, different in both temperament and language. Despite the horrors of trench warfare and poison gas, the message is clear: No matter the injustices and suspicions men faced as new immigrants to the United States, all differences dissolved as bullets whizzed past their heads. As one native-born New Yorker wrote home to his mother, "We have about every nationality you can think of in my company. I think it is about the finest thing in the world for anyone who, like myself, has always suffered with race-prejudice, to be mixed up in an outfit like this."