A LIBRARY JOURNAL BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR
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Everything he’d seen had been unimaginably different from the dry, dour streets of home, and to his surprise he was not sorry in the slightest. He was smitten by the beguiling otherness of it all.
And so began my grandfather’s rapturous love affair with America—an affair that would continue until the day he died.
This is the story of the Meisenheimer family, told by James, a third-generation American living in Beatrice, Missouri. It’s where his German grandparents—Frederick and Jette—found themselves after journeying across the turbulent Atlantic, fording the flood-swollen Mississippi, and being brought to a sudden halt by the broken water of the pregnant Jette.
A Good American tells of Jette’s dogged determination to feed a town sauerkraut and soul food; the loves and losses of her children, Joseph and Rosa; and the precocious voices of James and his brothers, sometimes raised in discord…sometimes in perfect harmony.
But above all, A Good American is about the music in Frederick’s heart, a song that began as an aria, was jazzed by ragtime, and became an anthem of love for his adopted country that the family still hears to this day.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
What People are Saying About This
“There’s plenty of storytelling charm on display here, with echoes of John Irving’s humane zaniness.”—The New York Times Book Review
“What does it mean to be a good citizen? A good member of a family? In A Good American, George considers both questions with humor, compassion, and grace. A beautifully written novel, laced with history and music.” —Emily St. John Mandel, author of Station Eleven
“This lush, epic tale of one family’s journey from immigrants to good Americans had me alternately laughing and crying, but always riveted. It’s a rich, rare treat of a book, and Alex George is a first-rate talent.” —Sara Gruen, New York Times bestselling author of Water for Elephants and Ape House
"As epic as an opera, as intimate as a lullaby, A Good American swept me through an entire century of triumph and tragedy with the wonderful Meisenheimer family...Alex George has created that rare and beautiful thing—a novel I finished and immediately wanted to start again."—Eleanor Brown, New York Times bestselling author of The Weird Sisters
“A sweeping, lush intergenerational novel about a family…learning to live in twentieth-century America.”—O, The Oprah Magazine
Reading Group Guide
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.
A CONVERSATION WITH ALEX GEORGE
You’re an Englishman living in middle-America, who has written a novel about what it means to be an American. How did this come about?
I come from a family of journey-makers. My mother was born and raised in New Zealand. In her early twenties she took a boat to England, met my father, and decided to stay. A few generations earlier, her great-grandparents had made the trip in the opposite direction, eloping from their English families who disapproved of their union, and hoping for freedom in the wilderness of the southern hemisphere. I left England to live in America because my former wife is from here. Like my characters Jette and Frederick, the impulse that fueled all our journeys was the same: love.
My experience of coming to America was the principal driving force behind the original idea of the novel, although of course as the book developed other themes emerged, particularly the question of how easy it is (or isn’t) to escape from your roots. Various characters in the novel are intent on leaving, but they all get pulled back in the end.
You’re an Oxford-educated lawyer, born and bred in England, who suddenly found himself living in Missouri in 2003. Do any of your experiences echo the Meisenheimers and was there a culture shock?
I moved to Missouri after thirteen years living and working in London and Paris. Was there culture shock? Oh yes.
I live in Columbia, Missouri, which is a thriving, vibrant college town with a strong cultural life – we have a world-renowned film festival, a first-class jazz series, a blues and barbecue festival…I could go on. However, when you get out to the smaller towns in more rural areas, it is a different story. There are good, salt-of-the-earth people living there, but it can feel as if I have landed on another planet, rather than just another continent. I’m sure people look at me and think the same thing – that I’m an alien in more than simply the legal sense. Sometimes, I will admit, I get very homesick.
This book will prompt readers to think of their own family heritage. Given that websites like Ancestry.com are extremely popular these days, why do you think Americans are so fascinated in discovering where their ancestors come from?
I have lost count of the number of times that people, on hearing my accent, have told me about trips they have made to visit cemeteries in England to see the graves of their ancestors. I understand this urge to discover one’s roots, and I think this enthusiasm for discovering one’s ancestry is especially strong in America, because it is such a young country, relatively speaking. (I grew up in a house that was built more than two centuries before the Declaration of Independence was signed.) Americans are proud to be American, but they are proud of their heritage, too. People want to know how they got here, and where their families came from. I hope that’s why this book will strike a chord with many readers. As James says in the book, “We cannot exist without our histories; they are what define us.”
Music, particularly opera and jazz, one a thoroughly European art form and the other completely American, figure prominently in your novel. Why are these particular types of music so meaningful for you?
I have always been a huge jazz fanatic. The spirit of improvisation, the excitement, the flat-out joy that I get from listening to great musicians play jazz, especially live – these are wonderful things about this music, gifts that I cherish.
I love opera, too, rather to my children’s chagrin. I was introduced to it twenty years ago and fell in love with it immediately. The music is sometimes jaw-droppingly beautiful. And the drama! The stories! Given Frederick’s extrovert personality, it seemed inevitable to me that he would be an opera singer, rather than a performer of Lieder, for example. And that he would give full rein to his dramatic instincts.
You are currently in the process of applying for American citizenship. How do you feel about the process? Also, how do you identify with the word “immigrant”?
I have mixed feelings about the process, I will admit. I love living in America. I have a deep and abiding respect for the principles upon which this country was founded. But I am not American. I am an Englishman. I know how Jette felt when she stood in the courthouse during the swearing-in process. I understand her tears. As this book nears publication it is interesting to find myself so precisely in the position of conflict that I have put my characters through.
I have no problem with the word “immigrant”. It is what I am. I grew up somewhere other than here. I know that my experience of coming to America has been easier than many, because I speak English and have white skin. It would be disingenuous to pretend otherwise. But even I have experienced some jaw-dropping bigotry, if not outright racism, and from the most unexpected quarters. I say this without rancor. For some, the word “immigrant” is freighted with suspicion, and hatred – which seems ironic to me, because this is a country full of immigrants. We all came from here from somewhere, and now we’re united by this large rock we live on. Sometimes we could all benefit from remembering that.
What writer or writers have had the greatest influence on you?
There are many, many wonderful writers whose work I admire and love. It would be nice to think that their talents influenced me in some way, because my own writing could only improve as a result. However, it’s probably a more accurate statement to say that they inspired me rather than influenced me. It hardly seems fair to blame them for my shortcomings.
Of course, there are far too many writers to give anything approaching a comprehensive list. So here’s a select few, in no particular order: Salman Rushdie, for the richness of his imagination and the strange glories of his language; Julian Barnes, for his faultless elegance when putting one word in front of another; Lorrie Moore, for her luminous prose; John Updike, just for being John Updike, but especially for Rabbit; John Fowles, who first showed me (in The Magus) the magical ability the best books have to transport you to another world; Richard Powers, whose books taught me to raise my ambitions when I sit down to write; and John Irving, who always told the best stories.
What do you hope readers take away from your novel?
I started the book with one simple overarching aim: to tell a really good story. I hope I have done that. It would be nice to think that the characters might linger awhile with the reader, that their stories and adventures strike a chord. Good storytelling is about making connections, pulling readers into your world and taking them on a journey. I hope I have connected. I hope people enjoy the trip.
Who have you discovered lately?
Peter Geye’s first novel, SAFE FROM THE SEA, was a beautiful and moving portrayal of love between father and son that has stayed with me long after I finished it. Geye writes with brilliantly lucid economy and I can’t wait to read more of his work. I also really enjoyed DIRTY MINDS, by Kayt Sukel, which takes a fascinating and irreverent look at love and lust, from a neurological point of view. It’s a compelling read, full of interesting nuggets of complex research that the author turns into information easily understood by non-scientists like me. It’s extremely funny, too. Highly recommended.