Amy Einhorn Books has a reputation for publishing novels by writers with a unique voice and a spellbinding story to tell. She published the most successful novel in recent years, “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett, and followed that with Sarah Blake’s “The Postmistress,” and last year, Eleanor Brown’s “The Weird Sisters.”
The most recent novel from Amy Einhorn Books is Alex George’s “A Good American,” the engrossing story of an immigrant family. Most of us came from somewhere else, and James Miesenheimer’s grandparents came from Germany in 1904.
His grandfather Frederick loved opera, and had a beautiful singing voice. He wooed Jette, who was “a good example of Teutonic rude health: six feet tall and robustly built. She clomped through the park with none of feminine grace that was expected from ladies of her class.”
They fell in love and, much to the consternation of Jette’s social-climbing mother, Jette became pregnant. Fearing that Jette’s mother would have Frederick arrested, they fled to America. They planned to go to New York, but ended up on a ship to New Orleans, and that became their destination.
A man on board the ship told Frederick that many Germans went to Missouri, so they set their sights on Rockport, where the man told them work could be found. Jette went into labor before they reached there, and a kind man who spoke German arranged for Jette to get to a doctor.
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When Frederick said he could not thank the man enough, he was told, “Go to your new home — go and be a good American.” Frederick promises the man he will do just that.
The doctor was in the small town of Beatrice, Mo., and that is where Frederick and Jette’s son, Joseph, was born. They decide to stay there where Frederick finds work at the local tavern as a bartender.
Frederick loved America — “its big open spaces, the sunset that drenched the evening sky in blistering color. He loved the warmth of the people. Above all he loved the smell of promise in the air.”
Jette, however, was unhappy and “rather than directing her eyes toward the future (she) instead turned her gaze back toward the home she had left behind.”
Like many immigrants, Frederick worked hard. He had the opportunity to buy the tavern, and began to feature his beloved music as entertainment. A black piano player came into the restaurant one day and introduced Frederick to jazz music.
Joseph had his father’s talent for music and began to take voice lessons. Frederick planned for Joseph to surprise Jette by singing in the tavern, but Jette was furious about this and Joseph, upset at his parents’ constant bickering, could not perform.
World War I was brewing overseas, and German immigrants were treated with suspicion. Frederick remembered his promise to be a good American, and decided to enlist in the Army.
“Going to fight for his adopted country would root his family in this soil. America had welcomed him and asked for nothing in return. But there was debt to be paid, and he intended to pay for it.”
Jette did not understand this, how her husband could leave her and their two children behind to fight a war against his homeland. She took over the tavern in his absence and turned it into a restaurant, featuring her German food.
One day, a black man named Lomax came into the restaurant and recognized Jette as someone he met when she and Frederick landed in New Orleans. He stayed on and helped Jette and Joseph make the restaurant a success.
Joseph falls in love with a young neighbor Cora, and they marry and have four sons. They live next door to his family, and Joseph eventually runs the restaurant. His four sons show great promise musically, and he turns them into a successful musical quartet.
At this point, James is telling his own story. He does not want to spend his life working in the restaurant kitchen, as his father did. He is jealous of his older brother, who feels no obligation to stay in Beatrice.
His younger brothers escape by going to college, and James feels trapped, spending his free time with his ailing grandmother and unmarried aunt Rosa.
Music is woven throughout this beautiful novel: Frederick’s operas, the emerging popularity of jazz in the South, the American standards that the boys sing. The book opens with the line, “Always, there was music,” and you can almost hear the music as you read. I think that there should be an iTunes playlist to go along with the book.
The harm of keeping secrets is a theme as well. Jette hides her pregnancy from her mother, Frederick hides the fact that he bought the tavern from Jette, Lomax keeps a secret that leads to trouble, and a big secret is kept from James. Keeping secrets builds a wall between people, and when that wall comes down, the damage can be irreparable.
“The Good American” is the story of 20th-century America as seen through the eyes of one family — a family that could be yours. It is beautifully written, with characters you care about. Like every family, there is great joy and sadness, sacrifice and reward. It feels like a new American classic, destined to be read for many years to come.
Rating: Five out of five stars.
Diane La Rue is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Her lifelong goal is to read one book per week; she submits reviews monthly for The
Citizen. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you read
Book: “A Good American” by Alex George
Publisher: Amy Einhorn Books
Cost: $25.95, hardcover