A Good American
Alex George, 2012
Penguin Group USA
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. (From the publisher.)
• Birth—February 27, 1970
• Where—England, UK
• Education—J.D., Oxford University
• Currently—lives in Columbia, Missouri, USA
Alex George is a writer and a lawyer. He was born in England, but presently lives in Columbia, Missouri.
His novel, A Good American, was published in 2012. He is now hard at work on his new novel, provisionally entitled A History of Flight.
Alex has been named as one of Britain’s top ten “thirtysomething” novelists by the Times of London, and was also named as the Independent on Sunday’s “face to watch” for fiction in its Fresh Talent feature.
Alex read law at Oxford University and worked for eight years as a corporate lawyer in London and Paris. He moved to the United States in 2003, and re-qualified as a US attorney. He now runs his own law firm in Columbia, Missouri.
Alex has two children, Hallam and Catherine. His hobbies include listening to obscure jazz albums, playing his saxophone, and cooking (and eating) complicated meals. He is proud to be President of the board of the Voluntary Action Center, a leading nonprofit organization in mid-Missouri. (From the author's website.)
Music is a hallmark of this novel, too — through the songs coming out of the radio, to the ballads and blues sung in the family restaurant, to the arias Frederick's son Joseph sings to woo his wife. Do you hear me, Broadway? This story would make a delightful musical. Readers also will be moved by this novelist's personal story. George was born in Great Britain but now lives in Missouri. Sometime soon, he'll be sworn in as a citizen of the United States of America.
George’s debut novel is a sentimental, lively, and sad family saga spanning four generations, from a couple’s flight out of Germany in 1904 to the hope that their great-grandchildren hold for the future. The story is told by James Martin Meisenheimer, the grandson of the original immigrant couple, the unusually tall Jette and the unabashedly rotund and red-bearded Frederick. This unlikely pair falls in love in Hanover and flees (a mother, not a war) to the U.S. with Jette pregnant. She gives birth to James’s father, Joseph, in Beatrice, Mo., a small town whose residents are capable of both kindness and hatred. Frederick opens a bar, then volunteers for the army and is killed in WWI. Jette turns the bar into a restaurant during Prohibition, a place that feeds the townspeople—with food, yes, but also music—for decades. When James calls his grandmother’s life “one long opera,” full of “love, great big waves of it, crashing ceaselessly against the rocks of life,” he is very much a mouthpiece for author George (and not unlike Styron’s Stingo), whose debut chronicles much of the 20th century through the eyes of one family. George, a British lawyer who has practiced law in London, Paris, and Columbia, Mo., where he now lives, evokes smalltown life lovingly, sometimes disturbingly, and examines the ties of family, the complications of home, and the moments of love and happiness that arrive no matter what.
Despite some dark moments, the book's overall tone is warm and nostalgic as the couple's grandson tells his family's story. George's narrator is bland when compared with his more colorful relatives, and this causes the novel to lose steam once the focus is on his own experiences rather than those of his parents and grandparents. Nonetheless, this memorable and well-written exploration of one family's search for acceptance in America should strongly appeal to readers who enjoy family sagas and historical fiction. —Mara Bandy, Champaign P.L., IL
An attorney originally from England, first-time novelist George offers a love song to his adopted state of Missouri in this multigenerational saga of the Meisenheimers from their arrival as German immigrants in 1904 up to the present....The melodramas of James and his brothers' lives—sexual escapades, religious crises, even the big secret ultimately revealed—are more complicated but less compelling than his parents' and grandparents'. At times the novel feels like a fictionalized historical catalogue, but there are lovely moments of humor and pathos that show real promise.
1. Frederick is an uncritical lover of America, but Jette is not. What is it that Frederick loves most about America? What is it that Jette has reservations about? In what ways do you agree or disagree with each of them? Why does Frederick go off to war? Do you think it is selfish of him? Is he deserting his family?
2. One of the central paradoxes of the immigrant experience that the novel dramatizes is the desire to remain connected to the old country and yet become fully American. Do you think assimilation happens more quickly and fully in the United States than elsewhere? Do you think it is happening as rapidly with today’s immigrants as it did generations ago?
3. What does being a good American mean to you? Do you think Frederick ultimately is one?
4. Why does Jette make her protest when the war ends? Is it simply a way of mourning Frederick’s death?
5. Some of the citizens of Beatrice are offended by Jette’s antiwar protest. Are there limits to the principle of freedom of speech, and if so, where do those limits lie? Does Jette’s protest cross those limits?
6. Is Joseph’s quarrel with the Reverend Kellerman justified? Why do some people turn toward religion after times of crises, while others turn away?
7. William Henry Harris and Lomax are the only two African-American characters in the book, and both are treated fairly horribly by everyone other than the Meisenheimer family. Would you describe Beatrice as a racist town? Is it simply a product of its time?
8. The evolution of Beatrice in a way mirrors the nation’s transformation during the twentieth century. What did American towns and people gain, and lose, with modernization?
9. Are there parallels between the gradual metamorphosis of the restaurant and the family’s integration into American society?
10. Why does James stay in Beatrice? Do you think he really has a choice?
11. Some secrets are revealed at the end of the novel. Did you see these twists in the story coming? Does every family have secrets?
12. Why does Rosa never reveal to James their relationship?
13. The author is an Englishman who now lives in the United States. How might the book be different if it were written by an American?
14. There are many different kinds of music in the novel. Which was your favorite, and why?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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