A Good American by Alex George
Published: 2012 by Amy Einhorn Books/G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Source: Purchased (e-book)
It occurred to me not long ago that when I first began my blog I had this great idea for a feature where I would talk about books I read based on the recommendation of another blogger. I think I did one post on it and then …. pffft. Well this book is a great excuse to bring “A Blogger Recommended” back to life.
Amanda at the blog Dead White Guys focuses a lot on classic literature (those dead white guys of the title) but she does dip into more modern stuff now and again; and recently she has started her own feature called Modern Pairings, pairing a classic novel with a new one. In this post, she paired A Good American with 100 Years of Solitude, among others, but despite that (I read 100 Years of Solitude and I think it went completely over my head) I picked up the modern half of the pair because her description of the novel sounded like something I would enjoy.
And I did.
The word epic is probably overused, but I think it is appropriate to use with the scope of this novel. It covers virtually the entire 20th century from the perspective of one family, the Meisenheimers; and is narrated by the 2nd son of the family’s third generation, James, who in his adulthood is an aspiring writer.
The story begins in Germany in the early 1900s when Frederick Meisenheimer woos Henriette (known throughout throughout the book as Jette) and when she becomes pregnant and is ostracized by her upper class family, the couple make the decision to leave for America. They hoped to travel to New York, but the next ship was leaving for New Orleans and since to them they were the same place (“they both had new in the name”) they set sail for a new beginning.
After docking in New Orleans they head to Rocheport, Missouri, where they are told work can be had in a community of other German emigres. En route however, they must stop when Jette goes into labour; for the rest of the novel most of the action happens in the town of Beatrice, Missouri.
And so begins the American story of this family. Beatrice is also a town of German immigrants so it is not difficult for Frederick and Jette to fit in with their new son, Joseph (and later, a daughter, Rosa). Frederick takes work at a local bar and eventually saves enough money to buy the place, and eventually causes a slight stir in the community when he hires Lomax, a black man who gave him and Jette assistance back in New Orleans.
As this story takes place over 100 years of this family’s life, there are tragedies, both big and small. Some are related to events happening in the world at the time, others are on a smaller scale but no less upsetting. And of course there are also happy occasions, and taken together I don’t know how anyone can not see their own family in the Meisenheimers.
…. Until toward the end of the novel, when there is a twist that just sneaks up and knocks the wind out of you (at least that’s what happened to me). It’s unexpected, of course surprising (I had to go back and re-read parts of the novel to see if I missed any clues – and I don’t think I did), but at the same time it makes sense. Whether all families experience the same situation is open to debate (my family has, it’s a very LONG but fascinating story that I might blog about one day) but even though it was a shock it didn’t take away from my appreciation of the story.
A big time cliche, but with this book you will laugh and you will cry and when you have finished you might very well go back to page one and start reading again.