When Frederick Meisenheimer started serenading Jette Furst from behind the hedge in a German park, little did they know that their story would have them travelling across an ocean, and then part of the way across a continent. The story would continue across major world events and through generations, and for each new generation a chance to redefine exactly what it is that makes a good American.
Whilst Frederick and Jette discovered love and each other, her mother disapproved and so refused to give her blessing to the union. Fate, however, had other ideas and so when Jette finds herself pregnant, she and Frederick head for America. In his case, it was literally just with the clothes he was wearing. They didn't have any real plan of where they would end up, so again fate conspires to send them initially to New Orleans, and then to a small town in Missouri called Beatrice.
Frederick's passion is music, and his arrival in America introduces him to a whole new world of music - different tempos, styles and beats! And, in turn, Frederick introduces many of the people of Beatrice to these new sounds when he starts booking musical acts to work in the bar that he starts off initially managing but ends up owning!
Despite speaking no English at all, Frederick falls instantly in love with America and wants to become a good American. He works hard, and dreams big but it is exposure to the seedy world of bare knuckle boxing that provides him with the funds to live that dream! Jette is more retrospective in her outlook, and yet, of the two it is really Jette that leads the family through the years to come.
The narrative moves forward through the life of the family, touching on the major events of the twentieth century, and it is unfortunate that those events do not leave the Meisenheimer family and their friends untouched. Whilst the book is a celebration of so many things like family and love, music and food, there is no shying away from the deaths that are scattered throughout the book. Some are expected, some are are not and some are very shocking.
If music weaves it's way through the narrative, then so too does food. With the onset of Prohibition the bar morphs into a restaurant, and then with onset of the Great Depression it changes, and again in the 1950s to a diner. I could definitely see the restaurant continuing to change its appearance and menu but the fundamental purpose of feeding people continuing on into the future with each new generation of Meisenheimers.
Our narrator is Frederick and Jette's grandson James. He shares not only their story, but also that of his father and mother, Joseph and Cora, his aunt Rosa and in due course those of his brothers as well, never realising the effect that some of the secrets that are kept will have on his own sense of self.
As I have been trying to write this review, I have been grasping at the words to use to describe this book. It is a family saga, it is funny and poignant, it is so many different things all rolled into one. I keep on wanting to use the description of magic realism but I don't think it is quite right. There is no magic as such, but there are a number of unusual characters who do unusual things including a dwarf, a giant and a minister who is on a quest. Perhaps a better description is fable-like.
The strongest part of the book was definitely the exploration of the lives of the earlier generations. Whilst I liked the part where we learned about James and his brothers, it also did become a little bit coming of age for a while there and as such lost impetus just fractionally.
This is a really great book to read. I cried (in public), I laughed and I closed the book with a satisfied sigh and a smile. Even a good Australian can appreciate the strength of the storytelling and the unfolding of an excellent story that covers several generations. I guess we too are a nation of immigrants so whilst some of our collective experiences might be different, there are certainly a lot of similarities as well.
An uplifting novel about the families we create and the places we call home.
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.
Poignant, funny, and heartbreaking, "A Good American" is a novel about being an outsider-in your country, in your hometown, and sometimes even in your own family. It is a universal story about our search for home.
Thanks to the publisher and Edelweiss for the egalley.