A Good American begins in Germany in 1904, the story of Frederick and Jette (short for Henriette) who fall in love. Jette’s parents consider it a bad match, one they will never approve of so when Jette falls pregnant and it is discovered by her mother, there’s only one option: emigrating to America. Jette is heavily pregnant on the long journey over but the young couple marry and look forward to their bright new future in the land of opportunity.
The book is narrated not by Frederick or Jette, but by their grandson James. He guides us through their journey across to New Orleans and the choices that lead them to settle in Beatrice, Missouri. It spans in detail, three generations with Frederick managing a local bar and then purchasing it for his family, the birth of Frederick and Jette’s children and their lives growing up with the choices they made. We see the arrival of our narrator James and his three brothers and track this generation as they grow. The story chronicles the changes of a nation as it goes through two World Wars, Prohibition and startling progess. Frederick and the future generations of his family must learn to grow, adapt and change their business and cater to the ever-changing wants of the town when they’re not being dictated to by the law. It deals with politics, prizefighting, farming, religion and barbershop-style quartets. But A Good American is more than a story of a nation’s growth. It is a family saga, a story of love, family, friendship and food.
I started reading A Good American at about 9pm last Friday night and I was immediately hooked! I was so drawn in to the story of Frederick and Jette and the unconventional way in which Frederick courted her and their subsequent flight to America. They find a strange country where they don’t speak a word of the language, where people trick Frederick when he tries to learn, but also where they find wonderful, generous, compassionate people without which they might not have made it. They form lifelong friendships in the town they choose to settle in – Beatrice, Missouri, although perhaps it chose them. They make their lives there, despite crippling homesickness, long working hours and tragic events.
The characters are so well portrayed, amazingly fleshed out and real from the main family down to the passers by that might only enter their lives briefly. Frederick passionately embraces his new country, loving everything there is to love about it. He finds strength in becoming part of the community, in ‘fitting in’. He wants to do everything he can to prove that he is American now, from becoming a citizen to fighting in a war when he is almost 40 years old. By contrast, Jette (who was the one who insisted they had to leave Germany for America) finds the assimilation hard, refusing to learn English for a long time. She suffers crippling homesickness for her unrelenting family, writing them letter after letter, detailing their new lives. It isn’t until after she suffers some personal losses that she takes steps to join the community. It is mostly out of necessity rather than desire, but it is a step she finally takes. I found the narrative style, having the whole story described to us by a grandson (whose name we do not learn until he reaches the point in the linear story where he is born) really worked for me. It was casual, almost like someone sitting down with you and telling you the fascinating story of their family history, but also thorough and well elaborated. The details are meticulous! And reading this book made me so hungry – pages and pages are devoted to food, from the first New Orleans feast that Frederick and Jette are greeted with upon their arrival into the country to the myriad of incarnations their business goes through over the years all in the name of feeding the locals in their town. Just as much time is devoted to music, each generation of the family having their own special passion and interest (and aptitude) for the craft.
A Good American is eloquent, beautifully written and constructed. It’s an amazing story from start to finish, full of wonderfully happy moments and achingly sad ones. It is love and loss in all its forms throughout the generations. It is a portrait of small, middle class America and the people that populate it, especially the immigrants. It was amazing reading the scene where they arrive at America and just how easy it was to make it your home back in 1904. Anyone could hop on a boat, providing they could pay for the tickets and be welcomed at the other end, having to only fill out a form! How times have changed, both there and here – it is a significantly more complicated and difficult process now.
This novel is a sensitive story, a perfect understanding of what it must’ve been like for two foreigners to be in a new country, utterly alone – until they weren’t. The friendships and small town community spirit with all its trials, tribulations and quirky characters makes for a great story. I enjoyed every page of this and would’ve read it in one sitting if I’d started it earlier!
Book #111 of 2012