"Always there was music." Frederick, an amateur opera singer, serenades a tall, wide-eyed German girl. So begins the courtship of Frederick and Jette, who, after she becomes pregnant, flee their unhappy life in Germany for America. The early twentieth century found countless immigrants flooding into New York through Ellis Island. In 1904, Jette and Frederick board a ship to New Orleans instead. "What's the difference? They're both new." Frederick, who speaks no English, steps into a jazz club and, enamored with the new musical genre, begins his love affair with America.
They ultimately settle in the tiny town of Beatrice, Missouri where we meet a plethora of bizarre and lovable characters. Frederick, although prone to mistake making and overindulging in his cups, is genial and lovable. Jetta, his wife, is bland in comparison. The family lives through prohibition, the Great Depression and the Kennedy assassination. The epic spans a century, but reads like a two-hour movie.
Dazzling and well-crafted, A Good American is replete with stunning prose and lovable characters. James, grandson of Frederick and Jette, relates the stories of the Meisenheimer generations. Abrupt changes of perspective, from easily flowing narrator to James's first person voice, interrupt the flow of the novel. Endorsements by many bestselling authors are paraded in the book's publicity. They may assist book browsers, but the book stands on its own as a bittersweet tale of America's melting pot and how our common bonds as citizens far outweigh any ethnic or cultural differences.
Alex George, writer and lawyer, enjoys jazz, playing saxophone and cooking. Music winds in and out of the story. No doubt his experience as an immigrant to Missouri provided fodder for this original and insightful tale of America's melting pot.
Laugh, cry, and cheer for the Meisenheimer family. Intensity and humor, discord and harmony co-exist in this great story--as they do in life. Highly recommended.
For approximately 400 pages, Alex George's "A Good American" carries the reader through the family history of the Meisenheimer clan in chapter-turning clarity told through the first person narration of James, a third generation German American born and raised in a small town in Missouri with no qualms about revealing the good, bad and the ugly bark of his genealogical tree. Although George's prose is wrought in James' overeager, intimate and almost "aw shucks" voice, the plot line loses steam after the death of family patriarch Frederick in World War I (around page 120) and becomes a litany of births, weddings, and funerals worthy of any family raconteur told over a Midwestern cracker barrel to anyone who might listen.
As the consummate chronicler, main character James unabashedly relates the story of his grandparents arrival in New Orleans, their trek to Missouri and the subsequent opening of their bar/restaurant with engaging prose that keeps the reader wondering what larger story or theme is about to develop. This does not happen. Author George passes on many opportunities but seems intent on just producing a wordy genealogical tree. A human rights angle could have emerged when wily musician Lomax saunters into town with cornet in hand and his penchant for spicy food. Didn't happen. There are no "sins of the father" going-on a la "East of Eden" or "Wuthering Heights" where the building of generations recoups something yearned that the previous generation either lost or wanted so badly it drowns in its own desire. There is no sense of loss of identity for the narrator--does he fit in? Are there telltale signs that perhaps he is different or has some talent that seems out of synch? But even this ease of fitting in--of being reared well--definitely a tribute to a loving family--falls short on what a reader expects on a dramatic scale. George keeps the emotional spectrum flatlined.
Albeit immensely readable, George's tale never rises above the promise of the initial premise. He recounts the day to day lives of his ever growing family but his point of "being good Americans" is never really underlined or dramatized in a larger way that takes the idea out of the realm of vignettes.
To be certain, there are secrets to be uncovered. Yet, even when these shadowy mysteries hit the light of day, the reader discovers that no suspicion of what is to come was ever framed in the first place. The reader is surprised that there is even a mystery to be disclosed. No tantalizing questions are ever asked until the moment of realization by the narrator passes into another "aw shucks" moment--quite with a fizzle and no dramatic bang.
Bottom line? "A Good American" is the story of an American family--more fictional memoir than a novel with an actual theme to prove. Author Alex George makes his point that every family in America, whether it be of new immigrants or founded back in the days of the Revolutionary War, has a similar history of assimilation. With likeable characters and a great sense of place, "A Good American" lacks the drama necessary to pull off its pivotal moment to consider it an excellent read. Nonetheless, in terms recreating an elderly family member intent on recounting the history of his forefathers, George crafts James as a great teller of tales--a sure hit at the next family reunion. Recommended.
Diana Faillace Von Behren
Author Alex George writes a historical novel that depicts another perspective of the immigrant experience of individuals that sought an independent life distant from their homelands and families. George tells the story of Frederick and Jette Meisenheimer who decided to seek opportunities in America but much more, to leave Bremen, Germany and the somewhat familial constrictions of tradition that prompted the couple to leave. And their journey begins aboard the Copernicus headed to New York, New Orleans, and eventually to the city of Beatrice, Missouri. One wonders why Beatrice?
Frederick and Jette's story is extremely romanticized but their story in spite of its fictional narration by the couple's grandson James, represents a story of thousands of immigrants that crossed the Atlantic Ocean from Europe during the turn of the century. Their stories resonate within the main characters and the people that they meet along the way, especially those who already had family attempting to adjust to life in the US. They brought their cultural traditions and skills in order to survive. And with great emphasis, George tells of Frederick and Jette's journey from Germany to the United States as flashbacks that paint an imagery of the couple's experiences from the old to the new world. But what is interesting about the novel and how George portrays the couple's life, a reflection of their past that is embedded with history and how they were able to transition into a new landscape and assimilate into American society in the Midwest. After 1904, their life would not be the same, and most importantly, the roles that each played within a new country and home that tremendously helped to define their identity culturally and ethnically - they became Americans. And that would also entail by 1918 a challenge for Frederick when he would take a call to arms against his former homeland.
A Good American takes the life of Frederick and Jette through the early twentieth century and during the most pinnacle periods in American history from immigration to wars fought. The novel is not a historical war novel of dramatic proportions, but it is a book that shows how many immigrants established a new life that went beyond the East coast of the United States and Ellis Island that was destined within the inner states of the Midwest.
This debut novel is a great read- the beginning draws the reader in immediately, but about half way through things start to get a little choppy. It's not enough to deflate the readability of the book at all, but it is noticeable that once we get past the narrator's grandparents things start to go in several different directions. And speaking of the narrator- either it wasn't clear enough, or I really just missed it, but his name was never clear to me until later parts of the book. Again, not enough to distract me from the story, but something I realized as I was finishing it up.
I do give a lot of credit for not seeing a plot twist that was quite surprising given that some of the other events were overly foreshadowed. But I was pleased to be able to actually say to myself, "wow!" as this doesn't happen often enough for me in many books.
This is definitely a book worth checking out, and I would read any forthcoming novels by this author.
on March 31, 2012
I'm sorry to say, but this is a truly awful book. History is whitewashed, the characters are only caricatures, reactions, gestures, and conversations are highly clichéd. This author seems to have difficulty looking at difficult moments. (Warning, there may be spoilers here.) Whereas thousands died from the filth and disease in the bowels of those early immigration ships, George's idea of hardship is a bed of blankets on the floor. World War I passes in a blink, and the difficulties that Germans faced in the Midwest during that time period is glossed over. Race relations seem merely nervous. Frederick's experience in the war sounds like a bad day at camp, not the trenches of stench, pain, dismemberment, and death. The first most important scene--Jette's break with her mother--is only summarized. The slow disintegration of their marriage is summarized as well, leading to a final and awkward conversation in which the marriage suddenly comes to an end. It's almost as if the author has difficulty keeping two main characters active in a single scene at the same time. Jette is kept off scene either tired, pregnant, or ill for most of the early pages, conveniently allowing the author to let Frederick to wander loose and alone on the ship without the difficulties of the early days of a marriage. In fact, everything is just too convenient. The couple has few difficulties making their way to a new land, finding a place to live (where people already speak their language), instantly finding work (and a free house) and all too easily establishing themselves as home and business owners. There is never a moment of loss and true discomfort (I don't think the short wagon ride counts), never a moment of hunger, never even a night without a place to sleep. This is a Disney-fication of history. I do hope people don't consider it an honest representation. I initially thought, "Ok, he's just telling a fairy tale. I'll go with that," but the writing is so poor, the characters so flat, I just couldn't continue reading. I stopped halfway through (and that was a painful dredge). It's likely unfair to rate a book that I haven't finished, but if a book is that painful to read, I think a rating is warranted.
on April 26, 2014
it started out as a 4 star book and each 1/4 of the book it lost a star.
shallow characters, far too many of them and so unbelievable.
the whole lomax character crossing their path 2 times. unbelieveable. nope sorry just too much.
dwarf lawyer on a bike married to the bombshell nymphomaniac music teacher that claims a multitude of high school boy's virginity.
creepy. disgusting. trashy.
the 8ft best friend who dies and just so happens to have the funeral on the same day as the dwarf.
were the cast of characters taken from hbo's 'carnivale'???
i could go on and on about the epic cast of characters but honestly i didn't really care about them.
a couple places i laughed out loud but it sure didn't save the book for me.
This book was more fun than I could have imagined. Rarely do I let a book interfere with my work. This one did just that. The story begins in 1904 with two lovers, Frederick and Jette, in Hanover, Germany, a city smack dab in the middle of northern Germany--triangulated between Denmark to the north, Netherlands to the west and Poland to the east. Circumstances force the two to get out of town quick, and so they hop on the first boat to America and end up in New Orleans, not speaking a word of English. Undaunted, they head north and arrive in the fictional town of a Beatrice, Missouri where they must stop so that Jette can deliver her baby. Bedridden in Beatrice, Frederick and Jette learn that everyone speaks German, and they decide to stay in the Missouri River town. (A contemporary parallel would be the Texas border town of El Cenzio where everyone speaks Spanish.) Frederick gets a job in a tavern and through hard work and clever decisions ends up managing the place and eventually saves enough to buy it. It becomes the focal point of the family and the book.
Landing in a Missouri town right off the boat from Germany resonated with me since my own German ancestors bought a prefab house in Philadelphia, sailed around Cape Horn with their house and up the Sacramento River to Broderick, California in the late 1800s--where they erected their prefab house. (Another great grandfather emigrated from Sweden to Tombstone, Arizona.) In many ways it was refreshing to see immigrants disembark in places other than Ellis Island, and their stories take different turns from the tenements of New York City. In this book, the family's life is filled with surprises, tragedies, triumphs, failures and unexpected turns of events reminding me that, "If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans."
The time period spans the 20th Century in America through the wars, the Depression, Prohibition and on through to the beginning of the 21st Century. Life in a small Missouri town is not the stilted stereotype often portrayed of the Midwest or the South--Missouri is a little of both. Instead the focus is on family life and the decisions that the family members make. Very quickly you realize that the story is not about immigrants, but rather families in the 20th Century. Also, I quit thinking about the extended family of Frederick and Jette as immigrants--they certainly did not. During WW I, those with German backgrounds and names (like the entire town of Beatrice) did make adjustments, but twenty some years later in WW II, no one thought of themselves as German; just Americans. By sheer luck, no one in the immediate family was at draft age during WW II or in the Korean conflict.
The story is told from the viewpoint of James, one of Frederick and Jette's grandsons. He knows his parents' story (or thinks he does) better than most kids know their family, and he knows it like small town folks know verbally related stories that can be easily passed around. Interestingly, Beatrice is not depicted as a narrow-minded hick town, but instead is viewed as somewhat of a microcosm of America, and so the intimate knowledge of the townsfolk is not a Peyton Place of intrigue but more of live and let live town--everyone has had some cross to bear; so no one gets overly accusatory. They just know about one another. Everyone is trying to get through the day, and the larger issues of the world, like the Great Depression, war and Prohibition, do visit Beatrice, but no more so than elsewhere in the United States. The story is about getting by and making adjustments no matter what life cast in your path.
The characters are rich and varied ranging from a piano man from New Orleans to a dwarf attorney who intimidates everyone and marries the prettiest girl in town to boot. The quirky cast of characters are not singled out as oddities but rather shown as how they can fit into the rich tapestry of an American town. Some fits aren't quite right, thought, and quirkiness is no defense against fate that is shown to have a mind of its own. Things never turn out as expected, but they do turn out, and everyone learns to live with the consequences of their actions and decisions as well as the consequences over which no one has control.
One thread that runs throughout the book is music. From Frederick's operatic enticements to Jette from behind a hedge to the four brothers' barbershop quartet, music is a constant. By himself, James is no musical prodigy like his father (Frederick's son), but with his brothers, he can hold his own in the town's only singing group available for weddings, funerals and any other event requiring music. However, the music is indeed a thread and not a chain or even a rope to bring harmony.
Overall, this book has all of the things that I usually find in mysteries, thrillers, historical novels and popular history--genres I usually read. It has romance too, but not the 'torn bodice' sort. The romance ranges from infatuation to a long-term agreement to make things work. There's lots of love, especially between friends and family. However, with love comes complications and the many kinds of tragedy that accompanies it. Finally, the book ends on a note that makes the narrator re-think his entire life.
on February 25, 2012
I downloaded the book on my NOOK...and I'd like to have my money back. I read the book, hoping and hoping it would get some focus and develop some characters. It went from an overview of life in America, even including a ridiculous meeting of a character and Harry Truman. Suddenly it was in the first person..he could have summed up his life in few sentences. I got screwed in more ways than one by a married woman. I discovered I was adopted. I ran the family restaurant. And to think..I read the sample pages and thought I'd like it. wow what a disappointment.
on March 27, 2012
I read this book as I was mesmerized by the description. We can all identify with that story...the story was interesting and there were a few twists...but some of the characters seemed out of place or unnecessary and the descriptions were flat. Some of the characters and story arcs were one dimensional. It was an average read. It was good for book club as we all had questions and it started a lot of discussions but it could have been so much more.
on February 12, 2012
This multi-generational immigrant story tells the complicated and enduring tale of one family's life and loves. After Frederick and Jette flee Hanover to start a new life, they end up in the small town of Beatrice, Missouri not because of any plan but rather because of a series of small choices that end up having a lasting impact. The story of their love, the family they create, and the subsequent generations is tied together by music; from opera to jazz to barbershop quartets, music is the constant thread that binds this family (and this story) together. The characters are real and leap off the page, and the writing has a quiet beauty that pulls you into this novel. There are times when I laughed, and times when I cried, but never a time when I wanted to put this book down.