A Good American is historical fiction written in memoir style. The fictional memoir is by James Meisenheimer, and he's telling his family's story. His grandparents, Frederick and Jette, immigrated from Hanover, Germany, in 1904, and due to a series of mishaps, wound up in (fictional) Beatrice, Missouri, on the Missouri River. They settle down there, have a family, run a bar. But life - and historical events - intervene.
James is one of four sons of Frederick's and Jette's oldest child, Joseph, and his wife Cora. James also has a spinster aunt, Rosa, Joseph's sister. Author Alex George does an outstanding job developing these characters, as well as a host of interesting (and sometimes quirky) supporting characters that move in and out of the main characters' lives.
One of the things I really liked about this book was how the author tied in events in American history - Prohibition, World War I, the Great Depression, the Kennedy assasination, etc. - and showed their effect on the characters (not to mention their effects on the plot). He may not like to do research (according to an interview), but he does a good job of it.
A memorable scene for me was when Joseph planned to serenade Cora with "Nessun Dorma." That is probably my favorite opera piece EVER. Music is an important part of this novel. While I like some opera and jazz, my favorite in this book would have to be the barbershop quartet singing. Not necessarily those types of songs, but the way four voices can harmonize, especially when not accompanied. (Must be why I'm a closet fan of groups like NSync and the Backstreet Boys.) George has even provided a link on his website to a playlist of songs mentioned in the book.
I was very eager to read this book.* Most of my ancestors were German immigrants, some from Hanover. They (great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents) had passed away before I was born, but I've been able to piece together much of their stories from other descendants and from the records they left behind. (*I received an advance reader edition about a year ago, but it was missing pages 121-150, and I was not able to get a copy to read again until recently.)
Alex George is an immigrant himself, from England, who became a U.S. citizen about the time this book was published. He has a real feel for the immigrant experience, noting in an interview:
I decided to tell an immigration tale soon after I moved to the United States myself. Writers are often told, "Write what you know.” It struck me that the experience of packing up my life and moving to another country, with no expectation that I would ever return home, was something worth writing about. And almost all people in America have a story similar to this one somewhere in their past. ...Frederick adores his new country immediately, and embraces it wholeheartedly. Jette, on the other hand, is constantly longing for home....This is the paradox of the immigrant existence: one wants to adapt to one’s new home without forgetting where one came from.
Read the rest of the aforementioned interview - Alex George has interesting comments about the concept of home and about family secrets, both of which I can relate to. Oh, and read A Good American, too - you won't be disappointed. I look forward to Alex George's next book.
© Amanda Pape - 2013
[This book was borrowed and returned through interlibrary loan.]