Alex George’s A Good American is a family saga of the first order, a thoughtfully crafted and beautifully phrased work of art spanning three generations of a transplanted American family. Our narrator is James Meisenheimer, a member of the third generation of Meisenheimer’s to whom we are introduced over the course of the novel.
It all begins in Hanover, Germany when two young lovers, Frederick and Jette, find themselves pregnant with entirely unsympathetic parents. Though the two have not been acquainted for long, they were deeply smitten with each other from the start, when Frederick reeled Jette in with his beautiful singing voice. They decide to try their hand at starting a family in America. Without an ultimate destination in mind, they board a boat bound for New Orleans and eventually settle in Missouri in the one horse town of Beatrice. En route to their final destination, the couple encounters both blank hostility and unparalleled kindness from their fellow Americans. Frederick ignored the former, concentrating more on the aid provided him and his new wife by the kinder of his new countrymen. And though Jette does not succumb to America’s charms quite as quickly as her husband, there is no denying the wonderful sense of possibility and individualism that reigns in their new home.
When Joseph Wall, a Polish doctor transplanted in the midwest, offers them a medical advice and a free carriage ride west, the Meisenheimer’s are filled with gratitude and an unyielding sense of hope. As the couple departs, Mr. Wall instructs Frederick to be a good American which is what he continues to do without fail for the rest of his life. When the carriage reaches Beatrice, Missouri, a town en route to their original destination, Jette goes into labor and their first son Joseph is born. It doesn’t take the small family long to decide to end their trip in Beatrice, a town with plenty of Germans and kind new friends. And so begins their life in the town that the new generations of their family call home.
A Good American continues to follow the Meisenheimer family, and by default, the people of Beatrice, for the next hundred years. Frederick plays the role of good American, running his own tavern, saving to buy his family a home, going off to fight for his country. Though Jette’s relationship with her husband grows rocky, their love for one another remains steadfast as their family grows and Joseph’s sister Rosa is born. Joseph marries and eventually has four sons of his own, one being James the narrator. Though James, the second-born, and his older brother are not bestowed with the musical prowess that allowed their grandfather to swoon his Jette and was passed on to Joseph, the younger of Joseph’s boys have golden voices that he quickly capitalizes upon. The four sons soon form a singing quartet, booked at all the major occasions in town from weddings to funerals. This shred of musical talent is one of many strings running through the novel, connecting the Meisenheimer family over the course of multiple generations.
The rise and fall of the family, the births and deaths, the slow modernization of its members are all catalogued in this epic novel. George’s book is at times unbearably sad, particularly when beloved characters are taken away without any forewarning. But it also is a joyous celebration of life, family, and growing up. Though there is no great single arc to the story, it is not a disjointed accounting of the disparate lives of people bound only by blood. A Good American explores the Meisenheimer’s with a discerning eye, lending more than sufficient attention to each central member and the import of the family history on each succeeding generation. A fully satisfying read from start to finish, George’s book paints a portrait of America that is not overly idealized nor depressingly bleak, but rather realistically portrays the country that many people come to filled with promise and remain in with contentment and fulfillment.