Friday, March 21, 2014

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: A Good American by Alex George

A Good American by Alex George is a historical family saga that’s a bit different. I enjoyed it more than I can explain because, when I try to describe it, it sounds like I didn’t like it very much. But really, the sum of the book was much better than the parts of it sound when I try to break it down.

The book is narrated by James Meisenheimer, who is one of the third generation American Meisenheimers. The story starts with the immigrants, Jette and Frederick, who come to America from Germany in 1904. Jette and Frederick have a romantic backstory, but Jette’s mother does not approve of Frederick. Jette becomes pregnant and the two must flee. Jette decides on America. Although initially reluctant, Frederick soon takes charge, falling in love with his adopted country, the land of opportunity. They settle in to a small farming community in Missouri and the saga begins.

James marches us along his family tree, introducing us to his family members by telling us all the old stories, chronologically. He carries his family and the reader through World War I and then World War II. There are births, tragic deaths, weddings, more births, more deaths, etc. The Meisenheimer family grows and more or less prospers. They live their lives interacting with others in the community and being touched, to some degree, by the goings-on in the larger world.

The plot of the book is essentially a straight-forward narration of the lives of the various members of the family, from 1904 until just about the present. It’s a lot of years and a lot of people, so it’s necessarily pretty superficial. Also, everything is narrated by a grandson. So, even as he’s giving details about affairs of the heart or festering sibling rivalries, there is always an emotional detachment (discretion?) and a speed of delivery that kept me distant from the characters. James had the most indiscreet details to give about his own life, but his life was the least interesting.

I’m not sure what it was about A Good American that made it so hard to put down. I wasn’t emotionally invested in the characters. They each seemed to be a cog in the wheel, so James’s problems, which took center stage in the last portion of the book, didn’t seem any more important to me than Joseph’s problems in the middle of the book or Frederick’s problems at the beginning. Maybe that’s the point. Each generation has its own crises and lives through them and then dies.

I think there is just something in that "American Experience" mythology--that immigrant- experience, march-of-progress story--that takes one family, one very ordinary family, and follows it through time that is compelling if well-told. And this is well-told. They live pretty ordinary lives. They suffer pretty ordinary tragedies. And it makes for a surprisingly good read.

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