How I Became an American

How I Became an American

3.0 1
by Karin Gundisch

In 1902 in a small German town a traveler turns up spouting catchy songs about adventures in America. To the townspeople, the land sounds like paradise, and ten-year-old Johann Bonfert is excited when his own family begins planning a life overseas. His father and brother leave early to find jobs in the steel mills of Ohio, and the rest of the family follows later

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In 1902 in a small German town a traveler turns up spouting catchy songs about adventures in America. To the townspeople, the land sounds like paradise, and ten-year-old Johann Bonfert is excited when his own family begins planning a life overseas. His father and brother leave early to find jobs in the steel mills of Ohio, and the rest of the family follows later in a long, miserable sea journey. Johann soon discovers, however, that it’s not easy to start life from scratch. America’s not paradise, and assimilation can be difficult, especially for grown-ups. Author Karin Gundisch’s American debut is a heartwarming and finely observed book that speaks to the enduring struggles all immigrants face, whether in 1902 or 2002.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this rather rambling and awkward chronicle, based on letters written by immigrants between 1902 and 1986 (according to an afterword), a fictional boy describes his family's experiences emigrating from Austria-Hungary to the United States. In 1902, 10-year-old John, his mother and three siblings leave their town of Siebenburgen to join his father and older brother, who have already emigrated to Youngstown, Ohio. Unfortunately, the narrative is often stilted and the dialogue forced, as when John's father announces his decision to leave his homeland ("I want to immigrate and try my luck in Youngstown, where they need workers. The weaving business is going downhill here, and I don't think it's going to get better. I don't want to wait until we have nothing to gnaw on. I see only one possible way out: immigration"). The boy recounts the family's arduous voyage to America, the sometimes trying adjustment to a new life and language, and the resolute efforts of both parents and children to support themselves financially. Throughout, John underscores the many differences between the two lifestyles and cultures, noting at one point that his mother, who insists on making rather than buying soap, "is just accustomed to the old home ways, and won't give them up." Though it introduces a likable young narrator and offers a clear view of the daily lives of German-speaking immigrants in early 20th-century Ohio, this account will likely prove slow-going for most middle graders. Ages 9-12. (Nov.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Children's Literature
This engaging novel follows ten-year-old Johann and his German family's immigration from Austria-Hungrary to the United States at the turn of the 20th century. When Johann's father moves to America to make a better life, Johann wonders whether his father will forget him and his family, like many other fathers from his community seem to do. Delightfully, Johann's father does send for his family, but their excitement soon fades as the realities of their harsh voyage sink in, including the tragic death of a loved one. The difficulties the family experiences on their trip do not cease once they arrive in America, where they quickly realize all the roads are not paved with gold. However, Johann and his siblings adapt much faster to the "American" ways than do their parents. Nonetheless, through hard work and perseverance, the family begins to find some success. While the writing is somewhat awkward, the story peaks our interest throughout, as it represents the struggles millions of immigrants encountered in the pursuance of their American dreams. 2001, Cricket Books, $15.95. Ages 8 up. Reviewer: Rebecca Joseph
Basing her 2002 Batchelder Award-winning novel on letters of the more than five million Eastern and Southeastern European immigrants to the United States around 1900, Gündisch describes a typical immigrant experience through the eyes of ten-year-old Johann "Johnny" Bonfert. The Bonfert family shared a two-room cottage in Austria-Hungary. Food was adequate but money scarce. When Johann's father and older brother travel to America to work in the steel mills of Youngstown, Ohio, they eventually save enough money to bring the rest of the family over, including a new baby. During the ocean crossing, Johann and his family endure cold, hunger, and seasickness. After clearing Ellis Island, they take a train to Youngstown. The baby soon dies as a result of unsanitary conditions in the ship's steerage. Despite their sorrow, the family members pull together and work hard—Johnny sells newspapers, his little brother delivers bakery rolls before school, and his older sister works as a maid—and at last they buy a boardinghouse for newly arrived immigrants. There is no high drama here—just the day-to-day activities of adjusting to a new country, language, and culture. Johnny understands his mother's homesickness and her attempt to replicate her old culture by starting a poultry business. He and his siblings adapt more quickly. While his parents anxiously await news from home, Johnny contemplates the working conditions at the mill and worries about his classmates who have dropped out of school to work there. Although the story is set one hundred years ago, new immigrants will spot similarities between the Bonferts' adjustment and their own experience. VOYA CODES: 3Q 3P M J (Readable without seriousdefects; Will appeal with pushing; Middle School, defined as grades 6 to 8; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9). 2001, Cricket Books, 128p,
— Florence Munat
School Library Journal
Gr 4-7-An immigration story of the early 20th century, this lively and interesting account is told through the eyes of "Johnny" (Johann on his birth certificate). His father is the first of this German-speaking family to emigrate from Siebenburgen (Austria-Hungary) to a job in the steel foundries of Youngstown, OH. Eldest son Peter follows him, and, in 1902, 10-year-old Johnny and the rest of the family arrive. They experience difficulties, such as the death of little sister Eliss, but manage to prosper, with Johnny selling newspapers, little Emil working in a bakery, and older sister Regina a housemaid. Peter heads for the farmlands of California, and Mama has her chicken farm and egg business but is persuaded she could earn more by turning the barn into a boarding house. This upbeat, often humorous, realistic narrative incorporates songs used to encourage or discourage potential emigrants and even neatly ties in the story of the Pied Piper of Hamlin. It could be the tale of many an immigrant family coming from central Europe and adjusting to life and customs in a new country.-Diane S. Marton, Arlington County Library, VA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
During the early days of the 20th century, Mama asks Johann to write the story of their journey from Germany to America because she wants all the children to remember everything they lived through. Describing the entire process in vivid detail, Johann tells of his family's life in their village in Austria-Hungary, and their decision to emigrate. Papa leaves first and they wait anxiously for him to send money so they can join him. Others have gone with such promises, never to be heard from again. When they finally take their leave, they must travel many miles by train before reaching the ship. Then comes the long journey in steerage with all its hardships and tragedies. Adjusting to life in Youngstown, Ohio, is not easy for any of them. It is an ever-changing, confusing kaleidoscope of economic opportunities and disappointments, dwelling places, and decisions. As was common in immigrant families, the children find themselves more accepting of this new American culture, while the parents are slower to adapt. Johann's description of his sister Regina's first attempt at dressing American-style to attend a dance and still adhere at least a little to her parents' traditions is both poignant and amusing. Gündisch's technique of telling the story from the point of view of a growing child is successful here. Johann's perceptions change and grow as he matures. It also helps to overcome Skofield's somewhat stiff translation, if the reader accepts that it is written by a child unsure of his English. Gündisch's research and use of primary sources serves her well; the result is believable, interesting, and entertaining. (Fiction. 9-12)

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Product Details

Cricket Books
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.84(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.61(d)
870L (what's this?)
Age Range:
8 - 12 Years

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How I Became an American 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was required to read this book for a English class. I found the book very difficult to follow at times, due to the writing style. It also took a very long time for any rising action, and there was no big climax to the story. Overall, I was bored with the story and had to labor over it in order to read the whole book.