Sunday, February 12, 2012
The Good American by Alex George
It is 1904. When Frederick and Jette must flee her disapproving mother, where better to go than America, the land of the new? Originally set to board a boat to New York, at the last minute, they take one destined for New Orleans instead ("What's the difference? They're both new"), and later find themselves, more by chance than by design, in the small town of Beatrice, Missouri. Not speaking a word of English, they embark on their new life together.
Beatrice is populated with unforgettable characters: a jazz trumpeter from the Big Easy who cooks a mean gumbo, a teenage boy trapped in the body of a giant, a pretty schoolteacher who helps the young men in town learn about a lot more than just music, a minister who believes he has witnessed the Second Coming of Christ, and a malevolent, bicycle-riding dwarf.
A Good American is narrated by Frederick and Jette's grandson, James, who, in telling his ancestors' story, comes to realize he doesn't know his own story at all. From bare-knuckle prizefighting and Prohibition to sweet barbershop harmonies, the Kennedy assassination, and beyond, James's family is caught up in the sweep of history. Each new generation discovers afresh what it means to be an American. And, in the process, Frederick and Jette's progeny sometimes discover more about themselves than they had bargained for.
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.