A Good American by Alex George (Amy Einhorn, February 2012)
In 1904 Frederick and Jette leave Germany and her family who disapproves of Frederick and flee to America. They get off course of their original destination, New York and land instead in New Orleans, traveling up the Mississippi, finally landing in Beatrice, Missouri, a town heavily settled by Germans, but Frederick and Jette, not speaking a word of English, still feel out of place. Jette gives birth to a son, Joseph, shortly after their arrival in Missouri, and with the help of strangers who are now friends, Frederick and Jette begin their new life as a new family in a new country. Their story continues through Joseph’s generation, into their grandsons’ generation, the landscape of Beatrice changing through the years, the landscape of their family changing, but all through the changes, the family remains aware of what their father and grandfather always wanted to be: a good American.
Told from the point of view of Frederick and Jette’s second son, James, the earlier story of his grandparents is sketchier and told in less detail than that of his parents and his brothers, each successive generation’s story fills in more until he reaches the stories of nieces and nephews and their families, as the narrative once again begins to fade out of focus. Through the entire story, the theme of music continues to heal the family, at the same time sometimes causing heartbreak and pain, but always bringing them back together. The idea of “good” is also ever present, a good American, a good father, a good friend, a good member of a family, traditional and non-traditional. The narrative is lovely, the characters known mostly through the actions James chooses to share and his recollection of events; many times in his tale, James appears to be an outsider, which we learn in the end is not entirely unfounded. At first glance, A Good American seems to be a simple tale of an immigrant family and the magic America works on them, but realizes how intricately and carefully constructed the narrative is makes you realize the whole is rather marvelous.